Contour Feathers: Anatomy, Types, Growth, And Facts

Joan Agie
Jan 24, 2024 By Joan Agie
Originally Published on Nov 29, 2021
Colorful of Scarlet macaw bird's feathers
Age: 3-18
Read time: 8.5 Min

Feathers are one of the most smooth and soft objects that you have ever touched, and the texture of the feather may have made you think about how these lightweight feathers help a bird to fly high.

Feathers are known to be the ultimate characteristic of a bird. These smooth, beautiful feathers that we see at first on birds are the contour feathers, wing feathers, and tail feathers of yellow, red, grey, blue, and all varieties of colors.

Well, there are actually more than three types of feathers on a bird’s body. As a matter of fact, six major types of feathers are classified for various purposes. Let’s learn more about the anatomy and types of feathers present on the bodies of different birds.

After learning about feather ornithology from this article, do check out facts on birds symbolism, and Cardinal state bird.

What are contour feathers?

The form of a feather that today's birds have is said to have evolved from the ancestral dinosaur species.

Before getting into the details of the contour feathers of birds, let's first get our insight into what a feather is and what outer surface functions it provides for the species of birds.

Birds of the world have evolved feathers from their layers of beauty, color, and form to become the amazing biological structure that they are. Even from the smallest bird to the largest bird species, feathers are unique for their intricate microscopic form and tips and their outer cover texture that show the smooth and silky details of wings, the tail, and the head of a bird’s skin.

Feathers are made up of a protein beta called keratin. Human hair is also made of keratin. Similarly, our nails too have keratin in them. Keratin is an insoluble protein particle that is also found mostly in mammalian hairs and reptilian scales. The feather structure follows a branching system. The branching between calamus, rachis, barb, and barbules with small hooks interlocks to form a feather structure or pattern on the bird’s body and skin. 

The calamus part of a feather extends into the central rachis, and these branches of the central rachis and tips attach themselves to barbs. All of the barbs then get interlocked with the barbules with small hooks which hook them into one large branch. These hooks, called barbules, form a smooth texture on the surface of the fluffy hair body of a bird. Contour feathers are the feathers that appear first to us when we see a bird near us. The leading contour feathers cover the body of a bird and maintain the protective layer and structure of the bird's skin.

Contour feathers provide the definition of the streamlined shape and outline of the body of the bird. The patterns like overlapping shingles of the contour feather make the bird's skin waterproof with their end feather tips, which are exposed outside of the body to the elements like air, downy rainwater, heat, wind, and pressure. And half of these specialized waterproof contour feathers have a fluffy soft part that is tucked inside or close to the body.

The coverts, which are the contour feathers on the wings, shape the bird’s body into an effective airfoil. The flight feather region, which attaches to the bone, is smoothened by the coverts. Each contour feather has a downy and horny central shaft on each side of the bird’s body. The central shaft also has flattened vanes on both sides. Bird contour feathers make an amazing protective layer and typically cover the outer skin of birds. Each and every vane of contour feather is connected with small hooks.

What is the function of the contour feathers?

The word 'contour feathers' is used for the type of feathers that provide the birds with a streamlined figure and structure, waterproofing property, and insulation. Contour feathers function to give a smooth, round appearance to the skin of the bird's outer body as well.

A visual coloring treat to the bird’s body is provided by these contour feathers. Also, the contour feathers act as a protective layer for physical obstacles like air, wind, and downy pouring rain. The stiff, as well as fluffy, outer cover of the playing feathers of the birds are the contour feathers. These medium-sized feathers determine the external contour of the bird.

The specialized functions of feathers like semiplumes, filoplumes, bristles, tail feathers, wing feathers, contour feathers, and flight feathers are typically for flight, defense, insulation, waterproofing, colorful displays, and camouflage function. The general covering displays of these birds' skin are the contour feathers. And these contour feathers determine the external contour of the birds.

These feathers not only serve the purpose of adding beauty to the bird and its skin, but they also have many important functions. A crucial role that these counter feathers play for a bird is giving it the ability to fly. The streamlined structure and the sharp end and shape of the contour feather have a property that helps the bird in its flight and for the balance in the sky to fly high.

Aside from the flight structure, the contour feather allows a bird to protect itself from the harsh elements found in the atmosphere air cover. The bird contour feather also maintains the body temperature and includes waterproofing and insulation technology in the body of the bird.

The UV rays passing and preening near and through the earth’s surface and atmosphere could affect the bird's skin and health. And the feathers of a bird do the work of blocking harmful rays from reaching and affecting the bird's body.

Collection of pen feathers of birds

Contour Feather Characteristics

Contour feather characteristics show the uniqueness of each individual bird species. Contour feathers and flight feathers are what we see on the outside of a bird. Well, the feathers are the characteristics of the bird species.

Bird contour feathers typically maintain the form of calamus, vane (vanes), barbs, rachis, barbules, and barbicels. If we go deep in search of the structure of contour feathers then, the first thing you'll find out in your search is that these bird feathers are made of a substance called keratin. Other than this material, there are different parts to the counter feather of a bird.

Let's start the list with the calamus. The part called the 'calamus' is the shaft of the bird's contour feather. Calamus is hollow and attached to the bird’s skin and body. Another part of the contour feathers is the one called 'rachis'. The rachis is the central shaft or the part of the contour feather of a bird where the vane is mainly attached to the wings. The vane is a flattened surface or part of the contour feather of a bird that would attach itself to the rachis on both sides.

Each contour feather is said to have two vanes. Then we see the barb. Barbs are the numerous branches that remain of the rachis that forms the vane of a feather and a bird's wings. Barbules (tiny extensions) are formed from the barbs that are typically or normally held together in the contour feathers by the barbicels. And all these barbules are held together by the barbicels, which are tiny hooks. The tiny hooks hold the barbules together by forming an interlock in them.

Contour feathers are the main protective shield feathers that act as an insulation layer and a protective layer from the UV rays of the sun. The contour layers provide the function of streamlining and waterproofing the bird's skin and body and form the structure. Just under these flight feathers and contour feathers are the fluffy feathers, or down feathers. They also serve as an insulation layer for the bird's skin.

The semiplumes located under the counter feathers also serve the purpose of insulation. The bristle feather of a bird is seen around its eyes or mouth. They are stiff feathers normally found on the bird's head. In order to avoid feather deterioration, birds shed their skin and replace it with a new set of feathers at a periodic time interval. This process is called molting. And you, enthusiastic and artistic kids who own a bird of feathers as a pet, might not restrict yourself from collecting all the molted feathers from the birdcage.

What do contour feathers look like?

Contour feathers appear on every part of the bird’s body except for its feet, legs, and beak. An interesting fact that you might not know is that contour feathers have colors only at the part that we see on the bird's body, that is, at the ends of the feather.

The contour feathers are seen to cover the outer body of the bird in regularly arranged rows. The shape of the bird's body is streamlined due to this pattern.

Normally, the contour feathers are what you see when you observe a bird. The streamlined shape of the feather attracts people towards the bird's wings. Contour feathers have a pattern of overlapping shingles in their feather design, with waterproof stiff tips exposing outwards and the fluffy bases of the feathers tucked deep inside of the bird's body.

There are different kinds of feathers that give purpose to the bird and its wings, as well as its body and flight. Such feather types include the primary feathers, the secondary feathers, the tail feathers, the contour feathers, the down feathers, the bristle feathers, the wing feathers, the semiplumes, and the filoplumes. Among these feather types, the tail feathers, contour feathers, wing feathers, and other flight feathers that provide shape and stability to the wing and tail of a bird are very important to the bird and its flight. The stiff tips of the wings of a bird have primary feathers. The shorter ones, just after the long primary feathers, are the secondary feathers. These secondary feathers are the trailing edge or tips of the inner wing and tail structure. Tail feathers cover the back feathers of the bird. And the tail feathers themselves article themselves with a bird's pygostyle.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for contour feathers, then why not take a look at feather identification, or highest flying bird?

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Written by Joan Agie

Bachelor of Science specializing in Human Anatomy

Joan Agie picture

Joan AgieBachelor of Science specializing in Human Anatomy

With 3+ years of research and content writing experience across several niches, especially on education, technology, and business topics. Joan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Anatomy from the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria, and has worked as a researcher and writer for organizations across Nigeria, the US, the UK, and Germany. Joan enjoys meditation, watching movies, and learning new languages in her free time.

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