The floor of the classroom was covered in tiny white feathers after Carson’s sojourn there last week during the cold weather. As I tried to clean, the fluffy feathers caught every wisp of air movement from my broom, sailed past my neatly-swept pile of dirt, and floated down on the other side of the room. I decided to find out why these feathers are so difficult to collect and placed one under the microscope. The branches, or barbs, of these downy feathers are very fine and delicate. Each barb sways independently to make a globe of loose fluff. That’s why birds like Carson have a base layer of thousands of downy feathers to stay warm. When puffed out, she literally has her own down comforter for the winter. The power lies in the air trapped inside the fluff, making dry conditions essential to maintain the insulation; a wet downy feather simply clumps together in a soggy mess.
To protect this warm, fluffy layer, she has an outer layer of contour feathers. These body feathers are highly structured with each barb hooking tightly to its neighbor like Velcro. The interlocking barbs create a strong and waterproof layer. While Carson needs her insulation dry now that she is back outside, I find that sweeping the classroom can be made a bit easier by misting those pesky downy feathers to subdue their airborne tendencies.