August is the time for collecting feathers in NE Scotland. All the gulls have been shedding their feathers, left, right and centre on the playing fields and parks.
This is an annual event for most species of bird. Even though they take good care of their feathers through preening, feathers, like human hair and fingernails, are not living material. Thus once damaged or worn, they cannot be healed or repaired. Thus feathers are designed to be shed and replaced by new feathers in the process known as moulting. New feathers grow in the follicles of skin and push out the old feathers.
The other purpose of moulting is to allow birds to change the colour or pattern of their feathers. This happens as juvenile birds grow into adult birds. It also enables birds such as the ptarmigan change into their winter plumage for camouflage or birds that have special breeding plumage to revert to non-breeding plumage. Some species such as mallard ducks are unable to fly for several weeks whilst this happens.
Although commercially bought feathers come in an attractive range of colours and look cute and fluffy, they are no competition for a wild feather found on the ground that is asking to be picked up!
The Gift of a Feather
Walking back home with a fistful of feathers makes passing children stop and look with interest. Feathers have a a uniqueness and power that is hard to put into words. In many Native American cultures bird feathers are sacred to their cultures, traditions and religions. For example, it can be considered a high honour to receive a feather as a gift of friendship. After a walk in the park, children can examine the feathers they have collected, pick their favourite and give it to one of their friends.
For many years I’ve been intrigued with answer feathers which are traditional healing tools for those seeking answers. An answer feather is usually a collection of two of three small feathers held together by a bead. You pick a feather you are attracted to, put it in your pocket or keep it on you. Within a day or two, you will find the answer or it will become clear to you. The feather should then be thanked and released back to Mother Earth or cleansed in moonlight for future use.
Talking feathers can be used during Circle Time as a change from a stick. At the start of the year, with a new class, the feather can be be small and fragile. The children may only talk when they are holding the feather. Care is needed when passing a feather to keep it intact. It can help create a special atmosphere, for a talking feather may only be held by a person who speaks from the heart and speaks the truth. A feather should always be passed clockwise. As the class gets older and more used to Circle Time, then the feather can be replaced with a larger one to signify the growth of the group. This can happen periodically throughout the year as important milestones are reached particularly when there has been friendship issues that children manage to sort out positively and the class dynamics are strengthened. I like the idea that a child could quietly post a feather to an adult when they need a moment to talk. Sometimes a silent act is more powerful and says more than a verbal request.
The tickly feather game
Sherry and Donna at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning have a lovely post about The Tickly Feather Game. Here children are lying on the floor with their eyes closed. One child begins by gently tickling another child with a feather on a stick. The tickled child gets up, takes the stick and chooses another child to tickle. The game continues in this fashion until every child is “awake” and everyone give the last child a special clap. Afterwards, children can talk about how the feather feels against their skin and whether all feathers feel the same. I’m sure children would enjoy making their own feather sticks too!
Feathers can be used for printing and other artwork, such as placing feathers on paper and spraying around them. Sandpits are great for feather sculptures as the feathers can be stuck upright in the sand. Older children may enjoy looking at the painted feather art on YouTube. Acrylic paint is applied directly to the feather.
Coloured feathers are a lot of fun for hunting and finding in the garden or outdoor space. They can be hidden in all sorts of places. You can make requests such as “Find me a small green feather” or “Find four red feathers”. This can be followed up with Lois Ehlert’s story Feathers for Lunch about a cat who is trying to catch birds.
A feathery investigation
An interesting investigation is to see where feathers will land on a windy day when released into the outdoor area or school grounds. Different coloured feathers can be released or thrown into the air in different places. If using gathered feathers then use the smaller semi-plume feathers which can be easily blown rather than the larger flight feathers found in birds’ wings or their tail feathers as these are on the large side.
The children can predict where they think the feathers will land or end up after one hour. Does this mimic where litter gathers?
Dropping feathers in different ways and seeing how they fall to the ground can be useful comparative work. Collections of different sorts of feathers help children understand the diversity birds and the different types and functions of feathers. It’s also a challenge trying to catch a feather that is twirling to the ground.
As light as a feather
Is it possible to weigh a feather? What other objects are as light as a feather? This can make a good homework investigation. Children can look for objects and seek advice from other people.