Feathers Are Even More Beautiful Up Close

Left:  Scarlet macaw, South America, Ara macao. 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. Right:  Red bird-of-paradise, Papua New Guinea, Paradisea rubra. The red bird-of-paradise is one of the 700 vibrant bird species found on Papua New Guinea. Because New Guinea is an island with few predatory species, local bird species have flourished in the face of little competition. The red bird-of-paradise is an example of the extreme sexual dimorphism apparent in the Paradisaea family. Like Wilson’s bird-of-paradise, the male red bird-of-paradise displays its extravagant plumage during mating season. Prancing in front of potential mates, the males spread vibrant red tail feathers out in a grand fan, and two corkscrewing quills emerge from the bird’s rump, adding to the mating spectacle.


Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books

Even the most common feathers are evolutionary wonders. 

Robert Clark would know. In 2011, he made the photos accompanying Carl Zimmer’s National Geographic article, “Feather Evolution: The Long, Curious, and Extravagant History of Feathers,” which took him all over the world to study the ubiquitous appendage’s long history, all the way back to fossilized feathers that appeared on birds’ predecessors. Driven to continue exploring on his own, Clark has since seen thousands of varieties of feathers and photographed hundreds, including those designed for warmth, camouflage, and sexual competitiveness. 

In his book, Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage, which Chronicle Books published this month, that diversity is on spectacular display. While Clark’s journey is surely aesthetic, it’s also unmistakably academic. Indeed, the photographer is as interested in feathers’ unlikely past and their myriad uses as he is in their elegance.

“The ways in which feathers have evolved and manifested themselves over time is riveting to me; over millions of years the scales of a dinosaur deviated and began to grow upward in spines that covered the body of birds. Through many generations, these spines spread, evolving specific purposes for the regions on the body on which they grew; eventually these spinal structures were imbued with extravagant colors and features,” Clark writes in the book’s introduction.

Ostrich, Africa, Struthio camelus. Also known as the camel bird, the ostrich has one of the largest ranging distances of a terrestrial bird. The birds’ powerful appendages allow them to reach speeds of 41 miles per hour. Their otherwise useless feathers can be used to adjust for balance while the bird is running.

Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books

Left:  Blood pheasant, Eastern Himalayas, Ithaginis cruentus. 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. Right:  Golden pheasant, China, Chrysolophus pictus. The male golden pheasant—also known as the Chinese pheasant—is an extravagant creature. Featuring reds and yellows, every section of their plumage is a vibrant color. But despite the male bird’s showy appearance, it is not as visible as one might assume in its dark, coniferous-forested habitat in central China. The layered distribution of the bird’s feathers obscures the less colorful bases of the crest feathers. This is a detailed view of the golden pheasant’s crest feathers overlaid over one another. Crest feathers such as these are ornamental. But though they serve no flight function, these feathers are crucial to attracting a mate. Males with vibrant colorations and well-preened feathers are the most attractive suitors.

Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books

Left:  Indian roller, Southern Indian subcontinent, Coracias benghalensis. Like its relative the lilac-breasted roller, this member of the Coracias genus is best known for its elaborate courtship displays. To attract a mate, the Indian roller dips and rolls through the air, displaying its brilliant blue feathers, best seen in the undersides of its wings. Right:  Grey peacock-pheasant, Southeast Asia through Northeast India, Polyplectron bicalcaratum. The largest of the Asiatic pheasants, the grey peacock-pheasant sports tail feathers dotted with ocelli—round markings that look like an eye—that appear to change color in different light. During the male bird’s mating dance, he directs his colorful feathers toward the intended female.

Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books

Clark’s goal was to make the feathers “look as if you could pick them up,” so he used macro lenses in his shoots. The samples he used came from museums in the United States, Germany, China, and Canada. He also purchased a few feathers, which he photographed in his Brooklyn studio. In the book, accompanying text for each photo explains why the featured feathers weren’t just chosen for their good looks.

“As the saying goes in architecture, ‘form follows function,’ but when it comes to feathers I would say if form follows function, then beauty follows form,” Clark wrote.

Left:  Manchurian ringneck pheasant, alpine Korea and Northeastern China, Phasianus colchicus pallasi. This bird is a variation of the common ringneck pheasant. Pheasants display color-varied sexual dimorphism, which means males and females differ significantly in appearance. The females of the Phasianus genus are rather unremarkable in appearance, while their male counterparts display feathers in a symphony of colors intended to attract a mate. Right:  King bird-of-paradise, Papua New Guinea, Cicinnurus regius. The king bird-of-paradise is a bright red bird with oddly shaped wings. The pair of tail wires shown in this photograph serves nonmechanical purposes; like other birds-of-paradise, the king uses its bizarre feathers in a complex mating ritual. 

Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books

Left:  Superb lyrebird, Eastern Australia, Menura novaehollandiae. Found in the forests of Australia, this species is known for the male’s ability to mimic sounds from its environment, ranging from complex birdsong to the sound of a chainsaw being used in the woods. The male lyrebird’s feathers, which resemble a lyre when fanned out, are crucial to its courtship. The mating rituals of a lyrebird are just as complex as its birdsong. The male bird builds a mound of topsoil on which it sings and fans out its feathers in a grand dance to attract a mate. This photo shows a detail of the lyrebird’s ornamental tail feathers. The tail feather is purely ornamental and not a flight feather. Right:  Golden-headed quetzal, Central America and northernmost South America, Pharomachrus auriceps. The vibrant feathers of the quetzal have been sought after for hundreds of years. The Aztec and Maya of Central America once adorned their crowns with the green plumes of the local varietal, the resplendent quetzal. This particular feather comes from a species found mainly in the upland jungles of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. They are distinct from the other quetzal species in that they have orange and gold head coloration and black underfeathers. The structural coloring of these feathers modifies light that hits their surface, allowing only green to escape, while the barbs near the base are a pigmentary red.

Robert Clark, courtesy Chronicle Books