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NatureSpeak Articles

Goose quills and other feathers: Nature's design for flight, warmth, and setting ink to paper

I couldn't suppress a tinge of guilt as I read the plaintive calls for columns in the last few issues of the Pique . Having creamed off the easy topics over the past year I may bear some responsibility for discouraging others from setting pen to paper. But my recent absence from this space has more to do with the failing health of my computer than to any lack of Naturespeak topics.

Presenting my aging but faithful 486 to a young technician I was shocked at his lack of reverence. "I can't fix that thing, it runs on DOS." You'd think I had asked him to repair my clay tablets or sharpen my goose quill – which brings me to the topic of this column.

I got to thinking, as I fired up my brand new "Pentium-powered" writing instrument, that only 150 years ago Dickens and others set down some pretty good prose using nothing more than an ink well and a feather. Until steel pens were introduced in the early 1800s goose quills were state of the art writing instruments. Whole flocks of geese were raised solely for their feathers and the 10 to 15 suitable quills from each bird were treated with alum and nitric acid to produce a firm flexible barrel ready to be sharpened into a nib.

The evolution from quill pen to Pentium and our dependence on the new technology has been so rapid and so complete that it’s easy to lose sight of the slower but even more amazing evolution of natural things, like feathers for instance.

Most scientists accept the theory that birds evolved from maniraptors or theropods, bird-like dinosaurs that roamed the earth during the Mesozoic Era, up to 180 million years ago. But regardless of the genealogy of birds there is no doubt that feathers have been around for a long time.

Numerous fossils of feathered theropod dinosaurs have recently been discovered in China. Their feathers were symmetrical, with vanes of equal length on either side of the central shaft, and like the feathers of modern flightless birds, they were unable to provide aerodynamic lift and flight. It seems likely that these primitive bird-like dinosaurs were warm-blooded and that the first feathers evolved from reptilian scales, not for flight, but for insulation.

Once established the basic feather design was endlessly modified through natural selection and ultimately lead to asymmetrical flight feathers with short leading-edge vanes, and long trailing-edge vanes. Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird to sport this aerodynamic design became airborne in the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago. Since then the feather has evolved into a bewildering array of functional and frivolous forms. From the elegant, waterproof suit of the penguin to the gaudy display of the peacock, the variations are endless.

Which brings me to the real reason for this column. Please let us hear from you. This is our space, our forum for communicating the endless wonders of the natural world. You can write about anything, anything at all – even goose feathers.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, March 2nd — Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8:00 a.m. Contact Michael Thompson for details.

Written by: Jack Souther


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