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Conservation-As Promised – More Feathers By: Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director

May 3, 2013
Northern-Sun Print
Last week, I brought up the subject of mankind’s uses for feathers. Some of the oldest uses and then one of the newest, as well. Well, since that column, I discovered an interesting book about feathers! And it has such a catchy title. The book, “Feathers,” by Thor Hanson, is an interesting read from start to finish. After elaborating on how feathers serve the birds that wear them, it goes on to share the many ways feathers have served people through the ages. Let me elaborate on one of those uses. Anyone who has ever handwritten or drawn anything has used pencils and pens. Those earliest of instruments trace their ancestry to, you guessed it, feathers. In fact, I found that the word pen is derived from the Latin “penna” for “feather.” I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of ancient scribes writing with feather pens, also known as quills. But they weren’t using just any feather. Oh, land sakes no! Not just any feather would do for a writing pen. Only the outer wing feathers, known as primaries, from larger birds were suitable. Goose wing feathers dominated the market, but feathers from turkeys and even eagles were used at times. A feather pen could be shaped to produce a variety of line widths, and the shaping was done with another tool that every old-time writer had to have ready at hand – something called the pen knife. And not even any primary would be used. The outer five primary feathers were considered the best. Most birds have 10 primaries on each wing, but the inner five are shorter, finer and not as desirable for use as pens. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? Or that they weren’t durable enough for good use right off the bird. There goes my image of Daniel Boone shooting a goose, plucking any wing feather and sharpening a quick point to dash off a note to loved ones back home. Seriously, those feathers had to be heat treated or treated with acid to harden the feather shaft before the tip was cut into the necessary shape for use in writing. Those large wing feathers had another advantage for early writers. The hollow shaft served as an ink reservoir that allowed the writer to scratch away longer between dips into the ink well. Finer lines required finer feathers, and crows provided some of the best feathers for really fine work. Even today, fine-pointed ink pens used by artists and draftsmen are known as crow quills. The tip on even the best hardened quill pens required frequent reshaping with that pen knife in order to keep producing a good line. A feather pen had to be discarded after being reshaped only a few times. A major industry formed to supply the worldwide demand for feather pens. Goose flocks became big business. The eggs could be sold while the birds were young and productive. Wing feathers were carefully harvested to serve the pen trade. Down feathers could be plucked for use in such things as comforters and pillows. And finally, the bird was consumed for its meat. Domestic geese didn’t require much in the way of expensive care. They could forage for themselves on grasses, seeds and bugs they gleaned from the countryside. Raising of geese was profitable and barely able to supply the demand until steel pen points began to flood the market by the mid-1800s. And before I put down the book, I learned something about waterproofing that I have apparently had kind of wrong all these years. Way back at ISU many moons ago, I learned that birds maintained the waterproof quality of their feathers by carefully preening and treating them with oil they pick up on their bill from a gland just above their tails. But I learned the microscopic structure of feathers contributes more to waterproofing than the oil. Tiny ridges and valleys on feather vanes trap air that water doesn’t penetrate. In fact, birds whose feathers become soaked with oil after spills lose their waterproofing when oil fills the microscopic valleys. You learn something every day.


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