Posted by: atowhee | August 24, 2008

Feather fall

A feather floated silently to earth.  I was walking by on an errand of no consequence.  Fetching something from the car.  Beneath the madrone there was dappled shade on the driveway gravel, and then a slender form fell before my eyes.  It lay there in the soft breeze, trembling slightly as if it might somehow presume to still cling to a living form.  I moved it to different locations with different light.* 







After the feather fell, and lay on the drab, sun-baked gray gravel, I searched the madrone.  A couple of Lesser Goldfinches whistled nervously.  They were not of the right hue or rightly huge enough for this particular feather.  I could see it came from the wing of one of the many Steller’s Jays that use the tree and bully the smaller finches away from the feeders there.  But at this moment there was no jay within sight, or even making noise nearby. This feather was now its own one-act play.  It was shed.  It stayed in the tree for some unknown period of time.  A bit of wind or a shuffling finch knocked it loose.  It fell.  I was witness to the final fall.  I can attest to that part of the story.  An anonymous feather from some anonymous jay in this bird-busy tree.

But, of course, there is much to be seen, perhaps a little to be understood. Like so much of life, and the things life throws off in its headlong, heedless, relentless race through time.  To be seen: the light and the feather interact.  At night it would seem to be almost raven-colored.  In bright light it fades to dullish gray and a hint of sky.  In deep shade with indirect sunlight you get the deep, rich blue of the Steller on display.  And in the third photo above you can see the dainty black pinstripes across the blue, across the central vein, the stripping that is so much a mark, a veritable parade banner, of the Steller’s Jay.

One third the way along the feather, starting at the quill end, there are two fine holes through the barb, the soft matter of a feather.  Did this feather become so uncomfortable the jay punctured it with its beak in order to pluck it out?  Surely feathers needing to be replaced become a bit like a baby tooth with the replacement pushing up from beneath.  And this one’s time had come: note the frayed end, the uneven stern worn by wind and flight.  Perhaps politicians, sports millionaires, charlatans of all stripes (even blue and black stripes) and most public figures should harken the message of the feather.  When you’re frayed and no longer working up to capacity, go fall out of a tree and lie there quietly beneath the sky.

BTW:  The feather is largely keratin protein with some coloring added.  In the case of blue and green there is some science to indicate the color is not “real” but has to do with light refracted by the feathers structure.  In a dark room there would be no blue…don’t go there, the mind begins to itch.

The feather is one of the things that makes a bird, well, not anything else we know of.  Perhaps extinct creatures had feathers but today they are the sole domain of birds, from penguins to hummingbirds.

Here’s what a whole Steller’s Jay looks like, with most feathers in place:









There’s more here if you decide to become a feather brain.

*Legal disclaimer: I do not now, nor did I then “possess” this feather. It is a thing unto itself, now that it is no longer a thing unto a bird from whence it came.  It lies somewhere outside of mhy control and my perview.  It just “bes” as an epistomologist might claim.  All I know is it is a free object in a world crowded with objects, many of which are far less interesting, beautiful or useful.


  1. Very lyrical as well as instructive! Thank you.

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