CULTURE & ARTS

Hypnotic Book Surveys The Natural Beauty Of Wild Bird Feathers

Welcome to nature's canvas.

A riddle: What’s as intricate as a thumbprint, but as bright as an emerald?

You might’ve guessed a pair of gleaming green eyes, or a leaf in early spring. But you probably didn’t guess another product of nature that’s less often the subject of poetic musings: a bird’s feather.

Calling attention to the singular beauty of the functional objects, National Geographic photographer Robert Clark took intimate portraits of feathers and collected them in a new book, Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage, treating them as subjects worthy of closer examination. 

In one of his feather portraits, a fluffy, brown object is topped by a sharp green peak. It’s a blood pheasant’s feather, and, as Clark described, it’s designed not for flying, but for squeezing through tight spaces. In another image, rows of clashing patterns make for a dizzying sight -- leopard-like spots are topped off by a starry expanse and a ribbon-like row of deep, velvety blue. The great argus’s feathers are quite the production; that’s why they’re used to attract mates. As is the King bird-of-paradise’s plumage, which looks more like a copper-and-gem sculpture than something that could occur in nature, and indeed, Clark writes that its feather “serves non-mechanical purposes.”

While the descriptions of the feathers are informative, gazing at the abstract compositions of each palette is a joy in its own right; it’s enough to make you wonder why sunsets get all the credit when it comes to romantic natural phenomena.

The below images and captions are excerpted from Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016.

  • Blood Pheasant
    These relatively small pheasants are strong runners, but not effective fliers. Their game-bird-shaped wings are designed only
    Robert Clark
    These relatively small pheasants are strong runners, but not effective fliers. Their game-bird-shaped wings are designed only to maneuver through tight spaces in escape rather than for sustained flight. Male blood pheasants display a remarkable palette of colors; the female birds have more muted feathers.
  • Silver Pheasant
    Juvenile silver pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, w
    Robert Clark
    Juvenile silver pheasants possess brown spots throughout their body. As the male birds age they develop a pure white morph, while the females remain brown. Originally found in Southeast Asia, the silver pheasant has gained popularity as a pet because of its calm temperament and nondestructive behavior in gardens.
  • Gray Junglefowl
    If it weren’t for its remarkable gold and black crest, the gray junglefowl would look very much like a common farm chic
    Robert Clark
    If it weren’t for its remarkable gold and black crest, the gray junglefowl would look very much like a common farm chicken. Its colorful crest is made up of a collection of paper-thin feathers laid on top of one another.
  • Great Argus
    At first glance, the great argus may appear to be a quiet-foraging, pheasant-like bird from the Phasianidae family -- until m
    Robert Clark
    At first glance, the great argus may appear to be a quiet-foraging, pheasant-like bird from the Phasianidae family -- until mating season. The wing feathers are the crown jewel of the argus’s plumage. In an elaborate mating dance, the male argus fans its wings toward the female, creating a conical display of spots. Large eye-like spots known as ocelli cover the primary and secondary wing feather groups. Some evolutionary biologists believe that the ocelli are meant to resemble seeds. The male with the most seeds might appear the most sexually viable, and therefore win over the female as a mate.
  • Unidentified Owl
    Down and covert feathers like the owl feathers seen here create a warm air pocket between the bird’s body and the surro
    Robert Clark
    Down and covert feathers like the owl feathers seen here create a warm air pocket between the bird’s body and the surrounding environment, allowing the owl to insulate itself and maintain its body temperature.
  • King Bird-of-Paradise
    The king bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serve
    Robert Clark
    The king bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves non-mechanical purposes; like other birds-of-paradise, the king uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual.
  • European Green Woodpecker
    Though officially a member of the woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. R
    Robert Clark
    Though officially a member of the woodpecker family, this bird doesn’t spend much of its time drumming holes in wood. Rather than finding its food in trees, the bird forages for ants on the ground. Both sexes are greenish yellow with a bright yellow rump and red crown. The secondary feather seen here can barely be seen until the bird opens its wings.
  • Superb Starling
    The superb starling’s wing feathers are a bright, eye-catching green indicative of a structural coloration; color is pr
    Robert Clark
    The superb starling’s wing feathers are a bright, eye-catching green indicative of a structural coloration; color is produced by microscopically structured surfaces that interfere with and scatter visible light. These iridescent birds live in large flocks where females breed with multiple males for larger genetic diversity, while the males pair with a single female for life.
  • Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise
    This image shows a single tightly folded tail feather of Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. The most curious feature of this sp
    Robert Clark
    This image shows a single tightly folded tail feather of Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. The most curious feature of this species is the elaborate display the male birds employ to attract a mate. During mating season, the male birds first make a clearing on the forest floor, removing all twigs and detritus. Once a female suitor arrives, the male performs a dazzling dance.
  • Southern Giant Petrel
    Arctic birds are a hardy breed. They have to survive in a hostile and difficult environment. To survive, the birds developed
    Robert Clark
    Arctic birds are a hardy breed. They have to survive in a hostile and difficult environment. To survive, the birds developed physiological and biological adaptations, including nasal passageways that filter out the salt from the air and wax ester–filled glands that the birds use to spit on attackers. Due to their diet of carrion, offal, discarded fish, and waste, southern giant petrels are often known as “stinkpots.”
  • Scarlet Macaw
    The coloration of this macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat
    Robert Clark
    The coloration of this macaw allows it to live in and blend into diverse habitats. While the bird has been subject to habitat loss, so far the species has proved to be widespread and adaptable enough to avoid major threats to population levels. The plumage of this Parrot ranges from rich reds to deep blues. Here is shown a secondary wing covert feather. Covert feathers cover other feathers, and allow air to flow over the bird’s wings and tail. Scarlet macaws’ strong wide wings allow them to reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
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