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Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

Art meets science in a poetic celebration of Earth’s astonishing diversity.

Feathers: A Stunning Photographic Love Letter to Evolution’s Masterpiece and Its Astonishing Array of Beauty

“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, unwitting of how wonderfully this artistic truth conveys a fact of science. More than material for metaphor, feathers are one of evolution’s most hopeful creations — a remarkable multipurpose design, which powers everything from warmth to mating to flight and endures as one of very few tangible links our everyday world has to the dinosaurs that walked it millions of years ago.

While working on a National Geographic story about Darwin, award-winning photographer Robert Clark became enchanted with the role of birds and their feathers in the pioneering scientist’s theory of evolution — from the diversity of finch beaks in the Galapagos, which first gave Darwin the idea that spatial isolation and adaptive change over time could give rise to a new species, to the pigeons he began breeding upon returning to Britain in an experiment to accelerate the process of evolution.

Clark, whose childhood love of birds never left him, grew newly bewitched by a scientific curiosity about the feather, that exquisite masterpiece of nature, and its 200-million-year evolutionary history. To exorcise this obsession, he set out to photograph an astonishing array of feathers, from a 125-year-old Chinese fossil predating the death of the dinosaurs to the understated feathery ferocity of the owl to the stunning plumage of the bird-of-paradise. The result is Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (public library) — an intensely beautiful visual taxonomy and a photographic love letter to this poetic feat of evolution. Each of Clark’s striking photographs, an intersection of art and science, is accompanied by short text illuminating the role of feathers in the life of that bird species, from hunting and camouflage to flight to mating.

King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Cicinnurus regiusThe King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
King Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Cicinnurus regius
The King Bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other Birds-of-paradise, the King uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
Golden Pheasant (China)Chrysolophus pictusThe male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Golden Pheasant (China)
Chrysolophus pictus
The male Golden Pheasant—also known as the Chinese Pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in Central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. A detailed view of the Golden Pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)Guora victoriaA member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.
Victoria Crown Pigeon (New Guinea)
Guora victoria
A member of a small genus of ground-dwelling pigeons from the Columbidae family, Victoria Crown Pigeons are known for their loud hooting call, sometimes accompanied by a clapping sound as their oddly shaped wings bat the air. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, they are considered the largest members of the Pigeon family.

What emerges is a glorious celebration of the diversity of this planet we call home and a gentle, poetic antidote to our arrogant sense of specialness and supremacy — there are, after all, creatures whose beauty stuns us into humility, into realizing that entire dimensions of wondrousness and whimsy exist on which we can’t even begin to compete. Even the way we name these creatures — lest we forget, naming can confer dignity or take it away — says more about our human hubris than about nature’s humbling magnificence: the species we’ve named with words like common are no less beguiling than those whose names contain words like superb.

Common Flicker (North America)Colaptes auratusWhile most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Common Flicker (North America)
Colaptes auratus
While most Woodpecker species are tree-bound, the Common Flicker has a tendency to forage near the forest floor. Here is shown a secondary feather with prominent notching on the tip. During flight, air is forced through the gap created by all the notched feathers in alignment, increasing the overall lift.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)Menura novaehollandiaeFound in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship.  The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.
Superb Lyrebird (Eastern Australia)
Menura novaehollandiae
Found in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from their environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male Lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to their courtship. The mating rituals of a Lyrebird are just as complex as their birdsong. The male birds build a mound of topsoil on which they sing and fan out their feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the Lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather.

Science writer Carl Zimmer, who has previously celebrated feathers as a miraculous “accident of physics,” marvels in the preface:

A bird can use some of its feathers to fly, others to stay warm, and still others to attract a mate. And among the ten thousand species of living birds, evolution has produced a staggering variety of feathers for each of those functions. Penguins, for example, produce tiny, nub-like feathers on their wings that keep them warm in the Antarctic Ocean while also allowing them to, in effect, fly through water. Owls, on the other hand, grow feathers on their wings that muffle the sound of their flight as they swoop in on their victims. The tail feathers of a Lyrebird grow to elegant twisted heights to attract a mate. The Club-winged Manakin has feathers that produce violin-like notes when flapped. The female Club-winged Manakin doesn’t choose a mate based on how his feathers look so much as how they sound.

Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border) Bombycilla garrulus This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Bohemian Waxwing (United States–Canada Border)
Bombycilla garrulus
This exploded view shows all the feathers of the Bohemian Waxwing. With more than 3 million birds, this member of the Passeriformes order makes up one of the largest populations of passerine birds ranging throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Waxwing is best known for getting drunk—they often eat the fermented rowan berries. Though their bodies are usually able to metabolize the alcohol, occasionally they do get fatally intoxicated.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)Lamprotornis regiusAlso known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Golden-Breasted Starling (East Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania)
Lamprotornis regius
Also known as the Royal Starling, Golden-breasted Starlings are social animals that exhibit a behavior known as “cooperative feeding” wherein the larger social group of Starlings collectively nest and feed their young. Male and female birds share the same coloration, and the Starling’s feathers grow more vibrant as the bird ages. The edges of the feather shown here appear iridescent, much like the feathers of a Peacock. Iridescent color is an indication of the feathers’ structural color, which interferes with natural light.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)Ara macaoThe coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Scarlet Macaw (South America)
Ara macao
The coloration of this Macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)Lophura nycthemeraJuvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
Silver Pheasant (Southeast Asia, Mainland China)
Lophura nycthemera
Juvenile Silver Pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the Silver Pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)Picus viridisThough officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
European Green Woodpecker (Eastern Europe and Westernmost Asia)
Picus viridis
Though officially a member of the Woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)Pavo cristatusThe male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Indian Peafowl (Native to South Asia, but introduced throughout the world)
Pavo cristatus
The male birds—more commonly known as Peacocks—may well be one of the world’s most recognizable birds. Their extravagant tail feathers, made up of elongated upper tail coverts, are some three times longer than the length of the bird itself. Their iridescent plumage is an example of structural color—the feathers are actually brown, but their structure interferes with light, making them appear blue, green, and turquoise.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)Paradisea rubraThe Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.
Red Bird-of-Paradise (Papua New Guinea)
Paradisea rubra
The Red Bird-of-paradise is one of the seven hundred vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition.

Complement Feathers with Cedric Pollet’s photographic love letter to tree bark, another breathtaking intersection of art and science, and these gorgeous 19th-century illustrations of birds of prey.

All photographs and caption text © Robert Clark courtesy of Chronicle Books


Published April 13, 2016

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/04/13/feathers-robert-clark/

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