The Feather, an Extraordinary Ordinary Thing

Have you ever heard the expression “stuck a feather in his hat and called in macaroni”? If you grew up in the United States, you almost certainly have because it is part of a popular American nursery rhyme that goes “Yankee Doodle went to town, just to ride the poneys, stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.” And just like most Americans, you have no idea what it means. I’m not going to explain it here because it is quite a story, but rest assured it will be explained later on.

The important thing at the moment is to recognize that a feather is more than one of the identifying characteristics of birds. In fact, the story of the feather (or feathers) in certain ways parallels the history and development of mankind. This is why the word is found in so many idioms and commentaries on the human condition.

If for this reason only (there are many others), I believe the feather justly deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Feather?

Most people will probably find this question rather condescending. Everyone knows what a feather is, but a dictionary definition can always be useful.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a feather as “one of many soft, light parts covering a bird’s body.” This is rather peremptory. The Cambridge Dictionary goes a bit further, saying a feather is “one of the many soft light things that cover a bird’s body consisting of a long, thin central part with material like hairs along each side.” The Merriam-Webster definition assures us that a feather is “any of the light, horny, epidermal outgrowths that form the external covering of the body of birds.”

Each definition seems to be somewhat more technical and detailed. But how do people who work with them professionally (ornithologists, zoologists, fashion designers, etc.) look at feathers? To them, a feather consists of:

  1. A “rachis” (shaft)
  2. Composed of “barbs” (branches)
  3. Which in turn bear “barbules” (smaller branches)
  4. In their turn, the barbules possess “barbicels” (tiny hook-bearing outgrowths) that interlock with the barbules of an adjacent barb
  5. To link the barbs into a continuous stiff “vane.”

So the basic structure of a feather is a “vane” consisting of a “rachis” composed of “barbules” made up of “barbicels.”

However, for feather professionals, this is not entirely true. Because for them there are two basic types of feathers.

  • Vaned feathers. These cover the exterior of a bird’s body. They are usually stiff and designed to help birds fly. There are of course birds that cannot fly (e.g. chicken, emu, kiwi, ostrich, penguin, turkey, etc.), which is why the definition of a bird does not include the ability to fly. Zoologically, a bird is generally defined as “a warm-blooded; egg-laying vertebrate animal distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, a beak, and typically (but not always) being able to fly.”
  • Down feathers. These are generally located underneath the vaned feathers but may also appear elsewhere. Down feathers (or simply “down”) are softer than vane feathers, and largely serve to insulate the bird against water and loss of body heat. Down lacks barbules and barbicels, which is why they are soft and fluffy.

Hatchling birds of some species have a special kind of natal down feathers, which are pushed out when more permanent feathers begin to emerge.

Vaned feathers used for flight are stiffened to work against the air in the downstroke but yield when the wing is moved in other directions. Some birds also pluck these feathers to line their nest and provide insulation to the eggs and young hatchlings.

Uses of Feathers

Because they are both soft and excellent thermal insulators, mankind has long used feathers for a variety of utilitarian applications. Some such uses have become rare or may have even passed out of existence; however, the memory of their uses is still fresh. A short list of these applications would include:

  • Bedding. Notably exceptionally high-class mattresses, pillows, and blankets.
  • Clothing. Given their excellent insulation properties, feathers are often used for filling winter clothing such as quilted coats and sleeping bags. Goose-down feathers are especially prized for this purpose because of their great “loft,” i.e. the ability to expand from a compressed state after being stored.
  • Fishing. Colorful feathers, notably pheasant feathers, have long been used to decorate fishing lures and fishing hats.
  • Fletching. Feathers are attached to the end of an arrow to aerodynamically stabilize its flight so that it will more reliably hit its target.
  • Fashion. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a booming international trade in feathers grew up to satisfy market demand in Europe and North America to adorn the heads of fashionable women. Because the trade caused so much destruction of bird habitats, conservations launched a major campaign against the practice, whose success caused the market for fashion feathers to collapse.
  • Writing. The “quill” or “quill pen” was the premier writing instrument for centuries. Quills were made mainly from the feathers of a variety of different birds, with those made from goose, swan, or turkey feathers being the most highly prized. Although it has long since passed out of use, the feather quill is still an almost universal symbol for writing and literature. 

Feathers and Culture

When you hear the word “feather,” you probably immediately think of one of two things:

  • Icarus, the mythological Greek character losing the feathers from his arms by flying too close to the sun
  • Dumbo, the cartoon elephant flying around a circus tent with a feather clutched tightly in his trunk

If you are a well-rounded person, you probably think of both of them, because these stories have been so firmly implanted into the collective consciousness. However, the influence of feathers on culture goes well beyond such fanciful tales—and perhaps into places you may never have thought of. Here are a few examples.

Feathers and Pasta

As I promised in the introduction to this essay, here is the explanation of the apparent relationship between feathers and pasta. Quite simply, there isn’t any.

As a reminder, the song lyrics that make this erroneous suggestion are:

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

Now sung as a kind of patriotic anthem in the United States, the character of “Yankee Doodle” was originally created by the British, who used it to satirize Americans during the Revolutionary War/War of Independence (1775–1783). The American soldiers turned the tables and appropriated the character and the song as their own.

The song has two verses; however, most people know only the first, which somehow seems to confuse a feather for a piece of pasta. Historically,  the “macaroni” in question does not refer to the food, but rather to a fashion trend that began in the 1760s, a decade before war between Britain and her 13 rebellious colonies broke out.

In the 1760s, it had become almost obligatory for young British aristocrats or sons of the wealthy to make a “Grand Tour” across Continental Europe in order to broaden their outlooks and deepen their cultural sensitivities. When they returned to England, these privileged young men brought back with them a new sense of fashion consisting of large wigs, slim-cut clothing, and a penchant for the then-little-known Italian dish of macaroni. The word macaroni quickly lost its culinary identity to become a dandified synonym for “fashionable, “sophisticated,” “worldly,” etc.

In the song, the British were sneering at what they considered to be a crude lack of class they deemed to be typical of Americans. In the famous first verse, “Yankee” is a slang term for an American, while  “doodle” designates a simpleton. So Yankee Doodle satirizes a dumb American who thinks that simply sticking a feather in his hat will make him macaroni (fashionable).

The term rather quickly lost its prestigious standing. During the late 1770s and into the 1780s, rather than meaning sophisticated and fashionable, macaroni began taking on a tinge of feminity and even homosexuality. It never recovered and eventually passed out of use.

Ceremonial Feathers

Various birds and their feathers have served as cultural icons throughout the world, from the hawk in ancient Egypt to the bald eagle and the turkey in the United States. Eagle feathers, in particular, have great cultural and religious significance to some Indigenous tribal nations. So much so that their use is even protected by a federal statute known as the Eagle Feather Law, which limits possession of eagle feathers to certified and enrolled members of federally recognized Native American tribes.

According to one ecclesiastical source, Catholics & Bible, feathers have similar significance in the Bible, in which they are associated with “holiness” and “purity.” Their specific significance is said to depend on their color.

  • Black

Black feathers are said to be an assurance of a strong angelic presence, pointing to one’s inner spirituality that can be accessed in order to let their immense wisdom guide your life.

  • Blue

Blue feathers serve as a reminder to relax and stay calm, that one should take a break from the busyness and chaos of the world as you listen to the advice of others.

  • Brown

For those who are away from home, brown feathers symbolize the need to keep in touch with loved ones.

  • Green

These feathers are a symbol of happiness and a sign that even greater happiness is on its way. They serve to comfort, especially when one is going through difficult times.

  • Orange

Orange feathers are an invitation to unleash one’s creativity on your way to success.

  • Pink

Pink feathers symbolize endless love, a love that has no boundaries to keep one from accessing the love that nature has reserved for you.

  • Red

Red feathers symbolize power and strength. It is an internal communication meant to notify you that you have good forces within you and whatever you do, you must put in passion and great endurance.

  • White

These symbolize divinity and protection. They convey the presence of peace and positivity around you that you should embrace.

“While the color of feathers is important,” the source cautions, ” the deepest meaning lies in you being attentive and looking inward at the angelic message. At the right time, angels align the feathers in your path so that they can validate your thoughts and give you vital clues to some of the questions you may have had.”

Idioms with Feathers

A feather in (one’s) cap.

An accomplishment or achievement in which one takes great pride. “If this clinical trial is successful, it will be a real feather in Marcia’s cap.”

Birds of a feather (flock together).

Birds of a feather means like-minded people, as in “Those two are real birds of a feather; they seem to have the same tastes about almost everything.” The proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” means like-minded people tend to form groups that share philosophies and ideas. It would seem to be in contradiction to another common proverb, “opposites attract.”

Feather (one’s) own nest.

To enrich oneself. Often considered to be pejorative. “While the company was sinking, the president was busy feathering her own nest rather than attempting to save it.”

Fine feathers make fine birds.

One’s exterior appearance, and notably how one dresses, can greatly affect how other people view and appreciate you. “George seems so ordinary most of the time, but when he dresses up, he really impresses!”

In fine feather.

Doing well, happy, in fine spirit. “Jerry seems in fine feather today. Has he won the lottery or something?”

Note: There is a similar idiom “in fine fettle.” Although the words “feather” and “fettle” may appear to be related, they aren’t. Fettle in this expression derives from an old verb “to fettle,” meaning to arrange or put into proper order.

You could have knocked me (him, her, them) over with a feather.

An expression of great surprise, bewilderment, or astonishment. “When I was promoted to head of the department, you could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Light as a feather.

Exceptionally light in weight. “This new construction material is extremely sturdy while at the same time as light as a feather.”


  • Indicating disbelief or designating something as nonsense. “Your explanation is horse feathers! What really happened?”
  • Long hair on the lower legs of a draft horse (e.g. Clydesdale), especially the rear legs.
  • Cinephiles will recognize “Horse Feathers” as a classic 1932 comedy film starring the four Marx Brothers (Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo).

Make the feathers fly.

  • Cause surprise, confusion, anger, or turmoil. “When they hear about it, this proposal will really make the feathers fly.”
  • Attempt or do something with great energy and enthusiasm.”The team’s new player really made the feathers fly by scoring an astonishing 36 points the first time he appeared in a game.”

One day chicken, the next day feathers.

Something of great value today can sometimes become valueless tomorrow. “A year ago I had a happy marriage, a good job, and good prospects. Today I am divorced, have no job, and no prospects. One day chicken, the next day feathers.”

Ruffle (one’s, some) feathers.

To annoy, irritate, upset, or anger. “George’s slightly off-color jokes may sometimes ruffle some feathers, but you have to admit they are always very funny.”

Show the white feather.

Act like or appear to be a coward; to exhibit cowardly traits or behavior. “Jerry said he would support us, but at the first sign of opposition, he showed the white feather.’

Tar and feather.

  • Literally, to cover someone with tar and feathers as a form of public punishment and humiliation. “The mob tarred and feathered the suspected thief as a lesson to other would-be lawbreakers.’
  • By extension, to severely criticize, reprimand, or excoriate someone, especially in a public and humiliating manner. “Everyone is demanding that the officer accused of sexual harassment be tarred and feathered, and removed from office.

Quotations About Feathers

Insightful observations using the imagery of feathers are so numerous that to choose among them is an arduous task. Here is a short selection of my choices. For many, many more, go to AZQuotes.

“It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds”—Aesop

“Erotica is using a feather. Pornography is using the whole chicken.”—Isabel Allende

“My head is buried in the sands of tomorrow, while my tail feathers are singed by the hot sun of today.” —John Barrymore

“When I sing, I close my eyes. If I see a feather, everything is fine. Without this image in my mind, the sound is not ‘truthful’ enough and I must begin again.”—Saran Brightman

“Men think highly of those who rise rapidly in the world, whereas nothing rises quicker than dust, straw, and feathers.”—Lord Byron

“What is love without passion? A garden without flowers, a hat without feathers, tobogganing without snow.”—Lady Randolph Churchill

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.” —Jean-Baptiste Colbert

“Lying on a feather mattress or quilt will not bring you renown.—Leonardo da Vinci

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”—Emily Dickinson

“Praises for our past triumphs are as feathers to a dead bird.” —Paul Eldridge

“How can I lose faith in the justice of life, when the dreams of those who sleep upon feathers are not more beautiful than the dreams of those who sleep upon the earth.”—Khalil Gibran

“Feathers are light; but when they come together, they become heavy!” —Mehmet Murat Ildan

This idea gives rise to the question, "Which is heavier, a pound (kilo) of feathers or a pound (kilo) of lead. You would be surprised how many people answer "lead."

“Duty is heavy as a mountain, death is as light as a feather.”—Robert Jordan

“As the eagle was killed by the arrow winged with his own feather, so the hand of the world is wounded by its own skill.”—Hellen Keller

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.”—Stephen King

“Just remember that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”—Stephen King

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should be, as generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.'”—Stanley Kubrick

“The power of philosophy flows through my head . . . light as a feather, heavy as lead.”—Bob Marley

“You can’t put feathers on a dog and call it a chicken!” —Phil McGraw

“I enjoy how women dressed in the 1920s with the shimmering jewels and rich feathers.”—Janelle Monae

“A peacock that rests on his feathers is just another turkey.” —Dolly Parton

“A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead.” —Alexander Pope

“If feathers don’t ruffle, nothing flies.” —Jessica Raine

“We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American Eagle in order to feather their own nests.” —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“You will not be carried to heaven lying at ease upon a feather bed.” —Samuel Rutherford

“I am a feather for each wind that blows.” —William Shakespeare

“What: Is the jay more precious than the lark because his feathers are more beautiful?” —William Shakespeare

“Life is short. It can come and go like a feather in the wind. —Shania Twain

“Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds.”—George Washington

“Life is always either a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope.”—Edith Wharton

“Good fortune is as light as a feather, but nobody knows how to pick it up. Misfortune is as heavy as earth, but nobody knows how to stay out of its way.”—Zhuangzi

Feathers and Computing

In computing, “to feather” or “feathering” is a technique used in computer graphics software to smooth or blur edges. The term derives from the pre-computer era when artists manually used feathers to achieve the same effect.

More specifically, feathering is a graphic effect or technique that blends a graphic image or text into the background or foreground by blurring the edges. Computer feathering can be divided into three principal categories.

  • Paintbrush feathering

Perhaps the most commonly used form, paintbrush feathering gives the painted area of a computer-generated image the effect of having been airbrushed or spraypainted. Color is concentrated at the center of the brush area and then blends out toward the edges.

  • Selection feathering

Feathering may also be used to blend the edges of a selected feature into the background of the image. When composing an image from pieces of other images, feathering helps make added features look “in place” with the background. For instance, if you want to add a leaf to a digitized photograph of grass, you could simply use feathering on the leaf to make it blend in with the grassy background.

  • Clone feathering

A “clone tool” actively copies and offsets pixels from one area of an image to another as the artist moves it around an area to be copied. A good example is covering a skin blemish by copying skin from one area of an image and placing it over the blemish. For best results, it is important to do feathering on the tool. This ensures the copied pixels will have a greater effect on the area to which the artist is dragging his or her mouse or stylus, and a lesser effect farther away.

In the skin example, this means that skin pixels copied directly over the blemish will have a strong effect on the blemish, thus hiding it. The skin pixels copied to the area around the hidden blemish will have a much lesser effect, thus preserving as much as possible the natural look of this surrounding skin, e.g. color, texture, wrinkles, etc.