One, two, three ... counting bird plumage is just horsefeathers!

Do you know how many feathers a turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has? I don’t either. Apparently no one does. Can you believe that? You’d think we would. Ben Franklin thought it should be our national bird. I wonder if we know how many feathers the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has.

The bird with the least number of feathers is the Archilochus colubris with only 940. OK, I didn’t actually count them myself. Someone must have, though, because that’s what it says in my bird book. Ornithologists don’t lie about important things like that. I just don’t know why they would know how many feathers a stupid hummingbird has, but not a turkey.

Archilochus colubris is commonly called the ruby-throated hummingbird, and they are only about 8 centimeters long and weigh about 3 grams. It would take about 4,500 hummingbirds to make up one turkey. Be thankful they aren’t served for dinner I guess. We don’t have them in Colorado. They only nest in the eastern U.S. in the summertime.  In the winter they sensibly head down to Central America. I’m not sure how they get there. Maybe they have frequent flier miles.

The Whistling Swan, Cygnus columbianus, can have as many as 25,000 feathers during the winter. The number isn’t the same in summer because they molt their feathers on a seasonal basis.

Birders are pretty serious about what they do, but I am not sure if I really believe these numbers. I kind of suspect someone cheated. Since about a third of a bird’s feathers are found on its head, I’ll bet they just counted the feathers on the head and multiplied by three. Besides, I have plucked chickens, and I don’t believe anyone can even count all those feathers.

The feathers that we see on the outside of the bird are called tetrices. They are the feathers that shape the body and add the ruby color to the throats of some hummingbirds. Just the male birds have these ruby throats. (Maybe ruby throats are to male hummingbirds what big biceps are to human males.) Tail and wing feathers are called quills. Then it gets confusing when you get “down” to the underwear. (Sorry.) Soft feathers called plumules help trap and hold heat. Even tinier, hair-like feathers under these are called filaplumes. Do you seriously believe someone counted 25,000 of these various feathers on a swan?

Back to turkey feathers, though. Part of the problem is that turkeys are changing size. The average turkey weighed about 13 pounds in 1929. Today the average turkey weighs 30 pounds. (That’s even bigger than a Cygnus columbianus!) Since the turkey is 4,500 times bigger than a ruby-throated hummingbird, perhaps they have 4,500 times as many feathers. That would give them 40,860 feathers.

About 4 billion pounds of feathers are produced every year by the poultry industry in the United States. About 140 million turkeys are killed and about 9 billion chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus). Remember, though, turkeys are three to four times bigger than chickens, which only average about 8 pounds. So we could say that about a billion pounds of feathers come from 140 million turkeys every year, and that’s about 7 pounds of feathers per turkey.

Feathers vary in weight depending on the type of bird they come from, and where the feathers come from on the bird. To make a pound of ruby-throated hummingbird feathers can easily take thousands of feathers. To make a pound of large feathers from an emu or ostrich can take around 200 to 500.  If we estimate 1,000 feathers per pound, then turkeys have, on average, 7,000 feathers.

So turkeys have between 7,000 and 40,000 feathers, depending on how you calculate it. You heard it here first.

Why do I always have to do everything myself?

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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