The Bird's Flight Feather

by D.W. Cloud

Engineer Stuart Burgess says, “A flight feather is a masterpiece of design and is one of the most efficient structures known to man” (Hallmarks of Design, p. 38).

Jack Cohen, who is an evolutionist, nevertheless says that the flight feather is “engineered to the utmost precision” and that examining it “is a humbling process” (“Feathers and Pattern,”
Advances in Morphogenesis, edited by Abercrombie and Bracket, 1966, pp. 9, 12).

A “simple” pigeon feather is composed of more than one million individual parts made up of billions of cells perfectly organized into a marvel of design.

The flight feather has the following three major features (adapted from Burgess, p. 39).

• a hollow stem containing air or foam, which starts out as a circle near the root of the feather and changes into a rectangular shape which is structurally stronger

• barbs angle off of the stem forming the basic feather shape

• two sets of barbules angle off of the barbs, with one set of barbules having hooks that interlock with a set of non-hooked barbules; there can be hundreds of thousands of barbules in one feather

With the barbules hooked, the wing has a lightweight flat surface that the bird uses to push against the air. The barbules prevent air from passing through the wing on the downward motion while allowing air to pass through on the wing’s upward motion.

Michael Pitman, who taught biology at Cambridge, describes the marvelous design of the flight feather:

“Some large feathers contain over a million barbules, with hooks and eye-lets to match, in perfect order. The feather is useless without this interlocking mechanism which acts something like an automatic zip fastener whose disturbance preening rearranges. When outstretched in flight, the hooks cause the whole wing-assembly to form a continuous sheet to catch the wind. The whole feather is a cohesive, elastic and light structure, well-designed to function as an air-resistant surface. Sensory receptors record its precise position. Over both wings they effect the continuous variations and fine adjustments of more than ten thousand tiny muscles attached to the bases of the feathers. Behold the parts of a precious instrument of aerospace, unparalleled in design and workmanship by human technology” (
Adam and Evolution, p. 222).
Kathmandu Traveler
David W Cloud