Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to Make a Feather

Since most birds shed and regrow feathers year to year, it is helpful to know how to make them.

Both feathers and hair are made with the same thing: a protein called keratin.  To make a hair, you more or less start by just stacking one protein on top of another.  It all happens in a follicle embedded in the skin

To make a feather, the process is more complex.  Follow the process Thor Hanson describes in his recent book Feathers:

“Imagine people in a crowded sports arena doing “the wave.” As it passes, each individual stands up and raises his or her hands at precisely the right moment to keep the wave moving fluidly around the stadium.  Cells at the follicle collar behave the same way, but instead of standing and waving, they add keratin to the growing feather barb.  It’s called helicle growth because it progresses like a spiral (or half spiral) around the rim of the follicle.”
Route a small blood vessel to each follicle to supply the nourishment to each feather as it grows.  Make sure you cut off the supply when the feather achieves full growth or else the bird could bleed to death if a large feather is pulled out. 

Once the feather is grown and blood supply is cut off, the feather is fully functional.  If it should get pulled out, just start the process of making a new feather all over again, immediately.  If the feather merely breaks but the shaft remains in the skin, you will have to wait until the year’s next feather pushes the shaft out. 

When you get really good at making feathers, please tell me how you get the same pattern and color in each feather every time they shed.  And how do you get the same matching feathers on each side of the bird?  No matter how much I read about feather growth, it still seems like a wonderful mystery.

Animation of Feather Growth by Matthew Harris, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lorra Lee, Sculpture in Feathers

Lorra Lee Rose creates life-size human forms clad in feathers.  She has been at this for a long time and has a devoted following of collectors throughout the USA.  Each large piece incorporates many many feathers.  Since the feathers she uses are often hard to come by, collecting enough for one piece can take years.  And since the feathers have to meet high quality standards, sorting through them to pick out the right ones and the best, is a hugely time-consuming phase.  But she loves it.  Like me, she prefers molted plumes and pays close attention to using only what is legal in the U.S.A.

Here is a quote from her home page, “Inspired by tribal art, old movies, belle epoque costumes—and especially by her deep experience of the materials themselves—Lorra Lee develops complex patterns that feature vivid color, contrast, movement and symmetry. The resulting works are exquisite creations that will delight anyone fortunate enough to witness them in person."  It is true, the photographs of her work on her website are stunning, but in seeing them person is better, an entirely different and enhanced experience.

Also I have a new feather-art facebook page where you can see my latest work. Be sure and click the 'like' button so you can stay updated.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Meaning of Feathers

What do see see in the image of this sharp-tail grouse feather?   

The mystery of meaning is in part what keeps me going.  Some of my favorite feather patterns remind me of the human form.  And strangely, they tend toward either paleolithic, like images of people in cave paintings, or some alien humanoid race.
The way patterns in a feather mean something to me doesn't have much to do with  what the feather does for the bird.  Example: the feathers on the back of a ruffed grouse show delicate heart shapes that remind me of valentines.  I might go on to think that these birds must be more devoted, affectionate, and tender creatures than if they didn’t have heart shapes on their backs. This is mistaken pattern identification—thinking that how I perceive the world uses the same reality as the one an animal experiences.

So I am wary of thinking that my perceptions of  an animal based on its visual qualities is really what that animal is like.  Think of grinding up rhinoceros horns to enhance male potency. Killing the animal and sawing off the long, upright, slightly bent Rhino horns for my own procreation-related ends because the parts look slightly the same is bad for the rhino. But probably giving meaning to a molted feather is a harmless pursuit.