Flight Feather - Specialized Flight Feathers

Specialized Flight Feathers

The flight feathers of some species have undergone evolutionary changes which allow them to provide additional functionality.

In some species, for example, either remiges or rectrices make a sound during flight. These sounds are most often associated with courtship or territorial displays. The outer primaries of male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds produce a distinctive high-pitched trill, both in direct flight and in power-dives during courtship displays; this trill is diminished when the outer primaries are worn, and absent when those feathers have been moulted. During the Northern Lapwing's zigzagging display flight, the bird's outer primaries produce a humming sound. The outer primaries of the male American Woodcock are shorter and slightly narrower than those of the female, and are likely the source of the whistling and twittering sounds made during his courtship display flights. Male Club-winged Manakins use modified secondaries to make a clear trilling courtship call. A curve-tipped secondary on each wing is dragged against an adjacent ridged secondary at high speeds (as many as 110 times per second—slightly faster than a hummingbird's wingbeat) to create a stridulation much like that produced by some insects. Both Wilson's and Common Snipe have modified outer tail feathers which make noise when they are spread during the birds' roller coaster display flights; as the bird dives, wind flows through the modified feathers and creates a series of rising and falling notes, which is known as "winnowing". Differences between the sounds produced by these two former conspecific subspecies—and the fact that the outer two pairs of rectrices in Wilson's Snipe are modified, while only the single outermost pair are modified in Common Snipe—were among the characteristics used to justify their splitting into two distinct and separate species.

Flight feathers are also used by some species in visual displays. Male Standard-winged and Pennant-winged Nightjars have modified P2 primaries (using the descendant numbering scheme explained above) which are displayed during their courtship rituals. In the Standard-winged Nightjar, this modified primary consists of an extremely long shaft with a small "pennant" (actually a large web of barbules) at the tip. In the Pennant-winged Nightjar, the P2 primary is an extremely long (but otherwise normal) feather, while P3, P4 and P5 are successively shorter; the overall effect is a broadly forked wingtip with a very long plume beyond the lower half of the fork.

Males of many species, ranging from the widely introduced Ring-necked Pheasant to Africa's many whydahs, have one or more elongated pairs of rectrices, which play an often-critical role in their courtship rituals. The outermost pair of rectrices in male lyrebirds are extremely long and strongly curved at the ends. These plumes are raised up over the bird's head (along with a fine spray of modified uppertail coverts) during his extraordinary display. Rectrix modification reaches its pinnacle among the birds of paradise, which display an assortment of often bizarrely modified feathers, ranging from the extremely long plumes of the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia (nearly three times the length of the bird itself) to the dramatically coiled twin plumes of the Magnificent Bird of Paradise.

Owls have remiges which are serrated rather than smooth on the leading edge. This adaptation disrupts the flow of air over the wings, eliminating the noise that airflow over a smooth surface normally creates, and allowing the birds to fly and hunt silently.

The rectrices of woodpeckers are proportionately short and very stiff, allowing them to better brace themselves against tree trunks while feeding. This adaptation is also found, though to a lesser extent, in some other species that feed along tree trunks, including woodcreepers and treecreepers.

Scientists have not yet determined the function of all flight feather modifications. For instance, male swallows in the genera Psalidoprocne and Stelgidopteryx have tiny recurved hooks on the leading edges of their outer primaries, but the function of these hooks is not yet known; some authorities suggest they may produce a sound during territorial or courtship displays.

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