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.