Photo Essay: Feather Fancy

Quills, plumes, bristles, down: Birds have the best outerwear on earth. A look at its magnificent variety and function.

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From Indonesia's red bird of paradise

Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about feathers, but conservation biologist Thor Hanson does—and thinks we take these natural marvels for granted.

From the wing of Africa's superb starling

Hanson, a self-confessed feather fanatic, lists the lightweights' strengths: Depending on type, feathers are amazing insulation, they're waterproof, their airfoil structure is a model of aeronautical engineering, and, oh yes, they're beautiful.

These vibrant contour feathers crown the head of China's golden pheasant.

We may stuff feathers in our parkas and stick them in our hats, but physicists and engineers try to crack their secrets.

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The blue-fronted Amazon parrot has a tail of different color (or three).

Hanson, the author of—what else?—Feathers, says, "They cross that imaginary but significant boundary we erect between the natural world and the human world."

Fly fishermen covet feathers from the grey junglefowl (India).

"Feathers are on birds outside your window, but they're also in your house," continues Hanson. "They're in your feather duster or your pillow, unchanged from how they are in nature. You're never far from a feather."

A peacock feather adapted for display.

It's not waterproof or flight-friendly, but rather, it's augmented to look as beautiful as possible.

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The red-crested turaco is no slouch in the looks department either.

The feather itself is gorgeous, but consider this: These African redheads have green bodies.

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