For the Birds Radio Program: Feathers for Humans

Original Air Date: Nov. 10, 1995

From Forrest Gump to down jackets, Laura Erickson closes her series about feathers with human uses for these lightweight ornaments. (3:47) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


One of my favorite movies ever was Forrest Gump. It was more famous for its special effects than its moving message of fate and redemption, but more me the prettiest special effect in the entire movie was of the feather blowing about at the beginning and end. It looked like an owl feather—a light and downy contour body feather from a Snowy, light-phase Great Horned, or Barn Owl. One of the movie’s themes was the question of how much in control of our fate we are, and how much we are blown about by circumstance like that fragile little feather.

Feathers capture the human imagination with their delicate yet detailed structure and their lovely colors. Fairies whizz through the earth on lacy insect wings, but angels, up in the highest reaches of heaven, are always pictured with feathered wings. Trendy catalogs currently offer feather pins—human constructions made to look exactly like feathers. But these are made by mere people, and no matter how beautiful and perfectly crafted, they’re heavy and stiff, mere shadows of the genuine article.

Real feathers have adorned human garments probably from the beginning of time. Whole pelts of swans were fashioned into beautiful, warm cloaks. But bird skin is thin and fragile, difficult to tan. To get the warmth of feathers in a garment, we usually must sacrifice its beauty, stuffing fabrics with feathers to make down jackets and pants makes us look more like the Michelin Man or the Pillsbury Dough Boy than an angel. So more often than not, feathers are used as ornaments rather than to construct an actual item. Milliners have always used them. At the turn of the century, chopped off wings and even whole birds were sometimes set atop hats at a jaunty angle, and a person was poor indeed who was unable to afford at least one feather in her cap. Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, plumes from egrets and other exotic, rare species were the feathers of choice in the fashion world, but nowadays only feathers from domestic birds can be bought, sold, or even possessed without a special license. Modern hats are trimmed with the naturally colorful feathers of a few breeds of chickens or domestic pheasants, or with chicken feathers that have been dyed.

Feathers provide humans with warmth and comfort as well as beauty. Feather beds and down pillows and quilts are luxuries even in the age of central heating, and we still talk about feathering our nest when we set aside funds for future security. But if we revere feathers for their beauty and warmth, their delicate nature makes some consider them inconsequential. Even a person with a feather in his cap wouldn’t ant to be called a feather-brain, and the only people who wouldn’t be offended to be referred to as featherweights are boxers or wrestlers weighing between 118 and 127 pounds. Yet for all their fragility, feathers are the only protection necessary to carry a hummingbird over the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season. It was a feather quill that was originally mightier than the sword. On this Veteran’s Day, let’s remember how fragile peace is, yet how enduring, like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, words we still believe in today, words that were written with a feather.