The Power of Feathers in Determining Shape and Appearance
by Bryce W. Robinson
Consider the photo above and the photo below. The differences in shape are rather dramatic, as the photo above looks rather non-typical of a Swallow. These two photos are of the same Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia, taken seconds apart.
Photographing swallows in flight itself is either a challenge or futile, I haven’t quite decided. But, if you sit long enough and forget about photography for a moment, you become aware of some incredible bird behavior. I sat alongside a tundra pond a few days ago, where two Bank Swallows and one Tree Swallow made rounds picking emerging insects from the water top. The interactions between the two species, and even between the two conspecifics were entertaining, but the real thriller was their interactions with me. Multiple times the birds flew within inches of my face, all the while giving me close looks at swallow feeding strategy and behavior.
Occasionally, the birds would perch to rest. A few times they choose perches only feet from me. When they landed, the would preen and chatter. One interesting observation during these resting periods was their change in appearance when they roused, or fluffed their feathers. The birds would lose the sleek swallow shape altogether, and in some postures appear more flycatcher-like than a swallow. This made me ponder the power of feathers, as they govern a birds appearance. It’s a bit bizarre, and a useful thing to consider when looking at a far bird, or a photograph that doesn’t quite make sense. Shape is one of the most useful factors in bird identification, but can at times be misleading without extended observation.
A minor complexity in the world of birds, but nonetheless fascinating.
I love how they crouch down and poof out too. Many birds do this. I don’t really know for sure why but I’ve had a few birds over my lifetime and when they poofed out they were more comfortable and relaxed it seemed to me. But I really don’t know. Wonderful captures and great observation!
Hi Laura. You’re describing a relaxed posture in birds called rouse. I’m not certain of any why’s for rouse, but I’d guess that birds often do this as they relax after preening to allow the feathers to refold and hold air, increasing insulation for temperature control. Glad you like the photos, and thanks for the comment!
Thanks for letting me know about the rouse. here I had a bird and didn’t know the term. But I did know they were relaxed in that position as mine usually was. And you’re welcome!