FOR the last few weeks our lawn has been littered with feathers of various sizes and patterns. As I write this text plumes from wood pigeons, house sparrows and blackbirds are all on show, and closer study would no doubt reveal additional species.

While feathers in unexpected places often signal a bird kill – inflicted by the talons of a sparrowhawk or the claws of a cat – in this case the cause is much more benign. The birds in our neighbourhood are simply undergoing their post-breeding moult, and the scattering of feathers provides evidence of which species are involved in this important event in the bird calendar.

Most birds moult quite gradually, so as not to become flightless and much more vulnerable to predators. This is why you often see a bird with the odd wing or tail feather missing. All feathers are, however, eventually replaced by the end of the moulting period.

There are, nevertheless, species that lose significant portions of their major feather groups at the same time, rendering them flightless until new ones can be regrown.

If you head down to your local lake in the summer you will initially be baffled by the lack of male mallard ducks, all individuals resembling the females of the species. Take a closer look at those slightly brighter ‘females’, however, and you’ll notice that most of their wing feathers are missing. These are, in fact, the flightless males in what is called ‘eclipse’ plumage, trying their best to blend in with the crowd because they are at great risk of predation without functioning wings!

Feathers are truly remarkable structures, their form honed by evolution over millennia. Inspection through a magnifying glass or low power microscope is recommended, as amazing details reveal themselves as you zoom in to the barbs and barbules that make up each major feather.

It was small dinosaur-type creatures that first developed feather-like structures, helping them move around their strange forested world millions of years before birds as we know them today existed. Eventually, larger creatures such as archaeopteryx appeared, their broad feathered wings affording them an early form of flight. Scientists tell us that today’s birds, with their incredible feather variation, can be considered the living descendants of dinosaurs.

People have used birds’ feathers for practical, cultural and creative purposes for thousands of years. They have created comfortable bedding from down, performed ritual dances with feathered head-dresses and penned important stories using quills taken from the wings of geese.

Feathers are remarkable in so many ways, but perhaps most of all because they allow the birds that share our planet today to soar high into the sky creating awe, to undertake incredible long-distance migrations, and to drop down to feed in our gardens.