Researchers unravel the mysteries of feathers

Feathers are somewhat similar to human nails or hair. If damaged, they can’t heal them themselves. The default option is to molt, the process by which birds replace some or all of their feathers, triggered by seasonally instigated hormonal changes.

Most birds molt twice a year, usually in early spring and fall. “They physically degrade, break, and are affected by UV rays,” said Rob Faucett, collections manager of the ornithology collection at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

“The result is that they are less effective when they are flying and with insulation. New ones grow out of something like a straw … (and) unfurl a lot like a large plant leaf does,” Faucett said.

“The best way to spot it is to see a bird in flight when they’re molting their primary feathers. You notice the gaps in the surface area of the wing.”

Some birds can molt all their feathers at the same time, such as loons, rendering them flightless. But since they are strong divers and swimmers, they can evade predators.

“The albatross has a different evolutionary strategy. It can’t float around on the ocean and (risk getting) eaten by a shark,” Faucett said.

This large sea bird lives most of its life in the air and almost all of it over, on or in the ocean, so needed a different way to molt.

Research by the Burke Museum’s previous curator of birds, Seivert Rohwer, showed discernable molting patterns in albatrosses.

“It’s a big bird with lots of flight feathers so it’s a pretty significant task to grow all the feathers in one year. Albatrosses have evolved a system that allows them to replace every feather every 3 years and still maintain flight,” Faucett said.

“At any given time, a brand new feather is next to one that molts (in another year),” he said.

The museum is the only place in the world where scientists can look at a huge number (45,000) of spread wings (most wings are folded up against the skin) to study molt or plumage pattern in spread wings.

“We have about 125,000 birds and about two or three parts of every bird. It’s massive beyond what almost anybody could imagine.”

The collection was amassed in part because of a twist of fate.

The Burke’s curatorship was not in the control of the museum but by the dean of the University of Washington’s Arts &Sciences department.

“It was clear to us that they weren’t going to replace Seivert and (keep) the collection without a curator,” Faucet said.

A remarkable fundraising effort brought them almost $3 million and allowed them to hire John Koicka, an internationally recognized ornithologist, from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

It also meant that the curatorship now is owned by the Burke.

As to that twist of fate, UNLV already had a excellent, large research collection and the major donor wanted it be kept safe and accessible. That collection came to the Burke Museum with Koicka.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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