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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


Lesson 2 Feathers




1) Students will know the different types of feather a bird has and the function of each.

2) Students will describe the construction of a feather.

3) Students will describe the insulating quality of feathers.


Materials: feathers, microscope and/or hand lenses



1) Feathers are something no other animals have. Discuss the purpose of feathers. Why do we sometimes say something is "light as a feather"? Have each student draw a feather. Label the main parts: quill, shaft and vane.

2) Look at the feathers brought in by students.

a. Are there different types? Can you guess what part of the bird it came from and what its function is? (contour, flight, down and after-feathers; see Alaska 's Birds, pg. 2-3)

b. Compare the same type of feathers from different birds. Measure some feathers. Which is the longest one you have? Which is the smallest? Relate the size to the type of feather and kind of bird it's from.

b. Are there different colors of feathers? Discuss the reasons birds have feathers of different colors.

3) Select a large contour feather and a flight feather.

a. Look at the vanes on these two feathers. How can YOU tell them apart? (The vane on the flight feather is wider on one side than on the other.)

b. Look at the quill. Is it solid or hollow? Why?

c. Look at the vane closely with a microscope. Can you see the little barbs? Split the vane and then smooth it with your fingers to see how it zips back up. A bird can do this with its beak. Of what advantage is this?

d. Split the shaft into several sections. People used to make snares out of split shafts from some of the larger birds like swans. ("Bird Traditions...", pg. 18)

4) Compare down feathers to contour feathers.

a. Look at a down feather with a hand lens. Try to smooth it down as you did the larger feather. Do the barbs on the vane stick together?

b. Look at the shaft on a down feather. How does it compare to that of a contour feather? (shorter, thinner, more flexible) How are these differences related to the function of the feather? Why does a bird sometimes "fluff up" its feathers?

5) Feathers are important in keeping birds warm. People use down clothing and sleeping bags to keep out the cold. Ask the elders about using feathers for insulation.

Experiment with the insulating quality of feathers. Then discuss why feathers are good insulation.

  1. Select something filled with feathers (hat, bag...) and two other things made from different types of materials such as wool, paper, or plastic. Speculate as to which is the best insulation. Make three pieces of toast at the same time and put one inside the feather container and one each in two other types of insulating material. Check the toast in 3 minutes and see which piece is warmer.
  2. Use feathers and two other kinds of insulating material and wrap up three thermometers. Put your experiment outside for five minutes and check the temperatures. What happens if you leave them out for a longer time? Use a fourth uninsulated thermometer if you want to see how much heat is saved by the insulation. Make a chart to show your results.

6) Make a feather collection for the classroom. Indicate

a) which bird it is from

b) which type of feather it is

7) Experiment with making feather pens. (See instructions on page following.) Try different kinds of feathers to find which work best. Try different angles of cuts. Record the data and draw conclusions as to how to make the best feather pen. Write your own set of instructions.




Types of Feathers:

Let's take a closer look at the one thing no animals other than birds have--feathers! Feathers keep birds warm, camouflage them from predators, allow them to fly, and attract mates. But all feathers are not the same. Here are a few of the different types of feathers:

Contour feathers

Contour feathers cover a bird's body, streamlining it for flight and keeping the bird warm and dry. Though they appear to cover the entire body, contour feathers grow only in patches, called pterylae, on most birds' bodies. Contour feathers have a vane, a shaft, and a quill. The vane is held together by thousands of tiny barbs. If the vane splits, the bird can "zip" it back up by pulling it through his beak. To preen its feathers, a bird first oils its bill at a special oil gland found at the base of the tail, and then by pulling individual feathers through its oily beak, each feather is "zipped up" and waterproofed. A bird must preen its feathers often in order to stay warm and dry, and in order to fly.

Flight feathers

Flight feathers are the long feathers on the wings and tail used in flying. Wing flight feathers can be easily identified because the shaft does not divide the vane evenly.

Down feathers are the small fluffy feathers found under the contour feathers. What do people use down for? Birds use their down to keep warm, too. Sometimes birds fluff up their feathers which makes them look fat. Birds do this to create air spaces between the feathers. These spaces hold air heated by the body which provides insulation from the cold.

Down feathers


After-feathers are small feathers that emerge from the same shaft as a contour feather. Best seen on grouse and ptarmigan, after-feathers help insulate the bird and fill out body contours.


Feather Technology

The Inland Dena'ina recognize at least four kinds of feathers: the very soft under feathers (down feathers), the tiny hair-like pin feathers (filoplumes), the stiff wing and tail feathers (flight feathers), and the remaining body feathers (contour feathers). Some people recognize the head feathers as a separate category. Following is an account of the upper Stony River Dena'ina feather technology except the feather clothing described in Bird Clothing.

Flight feather shafts of eagles, swans, cranes, cormorants, gulls, and other birds with strong shafts have been used to make snares, fishing equipment, and other items. Although eagles feathers are said to be the strongest, gull feathers appear to have been most commonly employed because they are both strong and easily accessible. Besides their strength, feather shafts are valued for being flexible, light weight, and waterproof. An elder describes them as having the qualities of plastic. They can be used either fresh or dried.

Lime Village people have made technological items from fresh or dried feather shafts by removing the barbs which make up the vane of the feather and splitting the shaft lengthwise to the desired width. To split a shaft, a small cut is made in one end of the shaft. The shaft is separated by holding one part of the shaft by the teeth and pulling slowly down by hand on the other section. The marrow is then removed from the shaft.

Bird, fish, ground squirrel, and other small animal snares have been made from feather shafts. Using a special knot, dipnets, set nets, "gunny sack" nets, and scoops for harvesting fish have been woven from feather shafts. "Gunny sack" nets have served as part of both beaver and fish traps. For all items, elders emphasize the importance of making the correct knot well. The distance between knots determines the mesh size and thus the type of prey caught in the net.

Although weaving nets and scoops with feather shafts is considerably more time consuming than making them from other material, their long life and light weight is said to be worth the extra time. Ideally nets and other items made from multiple feather shafts consist of one species of feather shaft. However, if enough of one species is not available, the item can be made from several or more species of feathers shafts.

Miscellaneous uses for feather shafts have included thread for sewing birch bark canoes, although spruce roots have been preferred. Birch bark baskets have been decorated by weaving them with dyed feather shafts. Red and black ocher provide the best dyes for feathers because they are said to be more durable than berry dyes.

Straight wing or tail feathers of large birds have been attached to arrow shafts so that the arrows fly straight. The water resistant feathers of waterbirds including those of cormorants have been used for hunting waterbirds, and during rain, land birds. Large land bird feathers such as eagle feathers have been employed for hunting land birds in dry conditions. The feathers of gray jays and magpies, for example, are too small. Both the feathers and points have been tied with sinew to the arrow shaft (see Birds for more information on arrow use and technology).

The wings of ducks, geese, and other large birds have been used as sweeping tools (brooms).

Eagle Feathers have been worn on the headdresses of singers at potlatches and possibly by warriors. Shamans have worn feather headdresses (Kari 1977:239). Brown bear skin headbands held bald eagle, golden eagle feathers, or a combination of the two kinds of feathers. Although golden eagle feathers are harder to obtain than bald eagle feathers because golden eagles live in the mountains, the two types are said to have equal value.


Make a Feather Pen

In the past, people used feathers to make writing pens. These were called quill pens, and they were filled by dipping the sharpened tip into a bottle of ink. To make a quill pen, find a feather with a strong shaft (try looking at the beach or near a pond). You'll also need a sharp knife and a bottle of ink or thin paint. Cut the tip of the shaft at an angle. Then cut a slit in the tip so that the ink will spread when you write with it. Dip the pen into the ink and try writing.

feather tip

It may be hard to make a quill pen that works well because the angle has to be just right to get the ink to flow evenly. But it is easy to make a fake quill pen using a ballpoint pen filler point. To do this, cut the tip of your feather straight across with a scissors or knife. Push the filler point up in the feather with the point sticking out about half an inch. Dab a bit of glue on the filler where it touches the feather.

feather pen


Lesson 1

What is a Bird?

Lesson 2


Lesson 3

Identifying Local Birds

Lesson 4

Bird Habits and Habitat

Lesson 5

Seasons and Migration

Lesson 6

Birds as Food

Lesson 7

Other Traditional Uses of Birds

Lesson 8

Traditional Stories and Beliefs about Birds


Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Last modified August 18, 2006