By: Jeff Bey
Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” That’s a nice thought. But it is also said that when death approaches, it is like a feather brushing the back of one’s hand. It is said that all birds have feathers and everything that has feathers is a bird.
I have been collecting feathers.
Man uses feathers in many ways but he certainly does not have feathers. We use feathered fans to cool ourselves. We use feather dusters in our homes. There are quill pens and feather masks. The word pen comes from the Latin word penna, meaning feather. There are feather boas and feather beds. We wear feathered costumes and feathered headdresses. Sitting Bull, famous Hunkpapa Sioux Chief, wore a long, feathered warbonnet. Crazy Horse, on the other hand, wore only a single Eagle’s feather tied upside down in his hair.
The word feather is used in many ways common to us all. After all, birds of a feather flock together, or so it is said. We can feather it out, create a feathered edge, or we can let something go like water off a duck’s feathers. Something can be as light as a feather or, God forbid: we can be tarred and feathered. On the other hand we can tickle someone with a feather. There are Goose Down jackets and vests to keep us warm. There are downy blankets and feather pillows. We can put a feather in our cap. Robin Hood wore a feather in his cap, a tail feather of a Ringneck Pheasant. There are dream catchers and angel wings. There are medicine bags (Sitting Bull may have had one) sometimes containing magic feathers. It is said that a magic feather is one that a person finds himself. Magic feathers surely hold magical powers. Indian tradition has it that an owl feather coupled with an eagle feather is very magical. Crazy Horse used feathers as the fletching on his arrows. Fly fishermen use feather lures (flies) to catch trout. If one is trying to enrich one’s life, it is said that they are feathering their nest. There are featherweight boxers and feather headed (silly) people.
Quill. Downy Vanes. Flight feathers. Plumes and Semi-Plumes. Tail feathers.
Leading edge. Trailing edge. Plumage.
Pegasus, the white flying horse of Greek mythology, you may remember, had feathered wings. So did the Griffon, half lion-half eagle creature that protects the way to spiritual enlightenment. Gargoyles, perching from their mounts on the sides of buildings, supposedly have feathered wings with which to take flight in their fight against evil. Cupid, with his bow and quiver of aphrodisiac arrows, had small feathered wings. In Greek mythology, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, fell to his death after flying too close to the sun with his homemade feathered wings. The heat of the sun melted the wax with which he fastened the wings to his shoulders and the wings came loose. Oops.
I have been collecting feathers. Sometimes I buy them. Usually I find them. It is best to find a feather, a perfect feather, and be able to identify the bird it fell from. Never kill a bird for a feather. They fall off on their own.
If you could choose to have any feather, from any bird, hanging from your hat, (or your hair), what would it be? If you could have any feather, from any bird, in your own medicine bag, which bird would it come from? What is the single most beautiful (magic) feather in the world? The Peacock? The Lady Amherst Pheasant? The throat feathers of the Ruby Throated Hummingbird or the Golden Pheasant? The hackle feathers of the Bantam rooster? How about the flight feathers of the Northern Flicker or the Steller’s Blue Jay? The Barn Owl or the Great Blue Heron? The Merganser or the Meadowlark or the Magpie?
Well, my fine feathered friend, let’s think about that a moment. I have found feathers from each of the above named birds.
The bird with the most feathers is the Whistling Swan, also known as the Tundra Swan. This magnificent bird has approx. 25,000 feathers. Wow! I’d like to find a primary flight feather from a Whistling Swan. Pure white. The bird with the least feathers is the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. This little thing is also one of the smallest birds and has approx. 900 tiny feathers. They can beat their little feathered wings an average of 50 – 60 beats per second. I found one dead outside my house. My cat got it. I kept some of its feathers. Delicate, iridescent and shimmering in the light, downy, wispy, emerald, reddish-purple (when held just right), perhaps the most beautiful feather in the world.
Or is it the Wild Turkey? The Turkey, that noble bird of yore and feast. Have you ever seen the tail feathers of the Wild Turkey, fanned out, spread to show their true beauty? The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird and the Lady Amherst Pheasant may just well want to step aside. Have you ever seen the flight feathers of the White Pelican? The Bald Eagle? The Peregrine Falcon? Maribou. McCaw. Ostrich. Osprey. Robin Red-Breast. Perhaps the red tail feathers of the Red Tailed Hawk.
I have been collecting feathers. I have been collecting magic.
Jeff Beyl is a free-lance writer, ardent outdoorsman and nature enthusiast living in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. You can reach him at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.