Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Feathers as Ornament

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HE ornamental plumage of birds is one of the principal illustrations of a great principle of evolution. The theory is that the male birds win their mates because of their beauty, those that are not beautiful being doomed to live single and leave no progeny to inherit their dullness. On the other hand, the successful wooer hands down his beauty to his sons. However, another quite different principle acts upon the coloring of the plumage of the mother birds; for if they should develop bright colors themselves, they would attract the eyes of the enemy to their precious hidden nests; only by being inconspicuous, are they able to protect their eggs and nestlings from discovery and death. The mother partridge, for instance, is so nearly the color of the dead leaves on the ground about her, that we may almost step upon her before we discover her; if she were the color of the oriole or tanager she would very soon be the center of attraction to every prowler. Thus, it has come about that among the birds the feminine love of beauty has developed the gorgeous colors of the males, while the need for protection of the home has kept the female plumage modest and unnoticeable.

The curved feathers of the rooster's tail are weak and mobile and could not possibly be of any use as a rudder; but they give grace and beauty to the fowl and cover the useful rudder feathers underneath by a feather fountain of iridescence. The neck plumage of the cock is also often luxurious and beautiful in color and quite different from that of the hen. Among the ducks the brilliant blue-green iridescent head of the drake and his wing bars are beautiful, and make his wife seem Quaker-like in contrast.

As an object lesson to instil the idea that the male bird is proud of his beautiful feathers, I know of none better than that presented by the turkey gobbler, for he is a living expression of self-conscious vanity. He spreads his tail to the fullest extent and shifts it this way and that to show the exquisite play of colors over the feathers in the sunlight, meanwhile throwing out his chest to call particular attention to his blue and red wattles; and to keep from bursting with pride he bubbles over in vainglorious "gobbles."

The hen with her chicks and the turkey hen with her brood, if they follow their own natures, must wander in the fields for food. If they were bright in color, the hawks would soon detect them and their chances of escape would be small; this is another instance of the advantage to the young of adopting the colors of the mother rather than of the father; a fact equally true of the song birds in cases where the males are brilliant in color at maturity. The Baltimore oriole does not assist his mate in brooding, but he sits somewhere on the home tree and cheers her by his glorious song and by glimpses of his gleaming orange coat. Some have accused him of being lazy; on the contrary, he is a wise householder for, instead of attracting the attention of crow or squirrel to his nest, he distracts their attention from it by both color and song.

A peacock's feather should really be a lesson by itself, it is so much a thing of beauty. The brilliant color of the purple eye-spot, and the graceful flowing barbs that form the setting to the central gem, are all a training in æsthetics as well as in nature-study. After the children have studied such a feather let them see the peacock either in reality or in picture and give them stories about this bird of Juno; a bird so inconspicuous if it were not for his great spread of tail, that a child seeing it first cried, "Oh, oh, see this old hen all in bloom!"


Peacock feathers.   Is beauty useful?

The whole question of sexual selection may be made as plain as need be for the little folks, by simply telling them that the mother bird chooses for her mate the one which is most brightly and beautifully dressed, and make much of the comb and wattles of the rooster and gobbler as additions to the brilliancy of their appearance.

Lesson II

Feathers as Ornament

Leading thought—The color of feathers and often their shape are for the purpose of making birds more beautiful; while in others, the color of the feathers protects them from the observation of their enemies.

Methods—While parts of this lesson relating to fowls, may be given in primary grades, it is equally fitted for pupils who have a wider knowledge of birds. Begin with a comparison of the plumage of the hen and the rooster. Then, if possible, study the turkey gobbler and a peacock in life or in pictures. Also the plumage of a Rouen duck and drake, and if possible, the Baltimore oriole, the goldfinch, the scarlet tanager and the cardinal.


1. Note difference in shape and color of the tail feathers of hen and rooster.

2. Do the graceful curved tail feathers of the rooster help him in flying? Are they stiff enough to act as a rudder?

3. If not of use in flying what are they for? Which do you think the more beautiful: the hen or the rooster?

4. In what respects is the rooster a more beautiful fowl?

5. What other parts of the rooster's plumage is more beautiful than that of the hen?

6. If a turkey gobbler sees you looking at him he begins to strut. Do you think he does this to show off his tail feathers? Note how he turns his spread tail this way and that so the sunshine will bring out the beautiful changeable colors. Do you think he does this so you can see and admire him?

7. Describe the difference in plumage between the hen turkey and the gobbler. Does the hen turkey strut?

8. Note the beautiful blue-green iridescent head and wing patches on the wings of the Rouen ducks. Is the drake more beautiful than the duck?

9. What advantage is it for these fowls to have the father bird more beautiful and bright in color than the mother bird?

10. In case of the Baltimore oriole is the mother bird as bright in color as the father bird? Why?

11. Study a peacock's feather. What color is the eye-spot? What color around that? What color and shape are the outside barbs of the feather? Do you blame a peacock for being proud when he can spread a tail of a hundred eyes? Does the peahen have such beautiful tail feathers as the peacock?


Peahens and peacocks.

The bird of Juno glories in his plumes;

Pride makes the fowl to preene his feathers so.

His spotted train fetched from old Argus' head,

With golden rays like to the brightest sun,

Inserteth self-love in the silly bird;

Till midst its hot and glorious fumes

He spies his feet and then lets fall his plumes.

—"The Peacock", Robert Greene (1560).

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Feathers as Clothing  |  Next: How Birds Fly
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.