Feathers book cover image

Feathers: Not Just for Flying

  • 1795

By: Melissa Stewart / Illustrated by: Sarah Brannen

Discover how practical feathers can be!

Young naturalists meet sixteen birds in this elegant introduction to the many uses of feathers. Feathers can protect a bird's skin like sunscreen, attract attention like fancy jewelry, or even distract a predator like a bullfighter's cape. Curious readers are invited to explore informative sidebars, which underscore specific ways each bird uses its feathers.

Backmatter includes illustrated classifications of feathers and author's note.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Melissa Stewart, author

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than one hundred fifty science books for children, including No Monkeys, No Chocolate; Under the Snow Tree (Peachtree); and the A Place for series (Peachtree). She holds degrees in biology and science journalism. She lives in Acton, Massachusetts.

Read more about Melissa.

Sarah S. Brannen, illustrator

Sarah S. Brannen is the author and illustrator of Uncle Bobby's Wedding (Putnam) and the illustrator of Digging for Troy: From Homer to Hisarlik; and At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui. She lives in Massachusetts.

Read more about Sarah.

Awards & Honors:

  • Chicago Public Library's Best Informational Books for Younger Readers
  • Cybils, Elementary & Middle Grade nonfiction
  • Bulletin Blue Ribbon from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • John Burroughs Riverby Award for Young Readers
  • AAAS's Science Books & Films Best List
  • Illinois State Library Monarch Award Master List
  • NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
  • ILA Teachers' Choices
  • Kiss the Book – Top 50 Elementary
  • Crystal Kite Member Choice Award

Editorial Reviews:

Publishers Weekly, starred review

Feathers are not only a means of avian locomotion—they also have many secondary purposes for birds. “Feathers can warm like a blanket... or cushion like a pillow,” writes Stewart. “Feathers can shade out sun like an umbrella... or protect skin like sunscreen.” Making skillful use of trompe l’oiel, Brannen’s delicate, refined watercolors give the project the feel of a birders’ scrapbook, as though the feathers, “photographs,” informational notes, and other ephemera that appear have been taped, stapled, and clipped to the pages (one note even has a telling coffee cup stain). A focused and thorough examination that highlights the striking beauty of these often-unnoticed natural objects.

Kirkus Reviews

An album of images and a simple text reveal that birds' feathers are far more versatile than one might expect.

Comparing feathers to familiar objects, Stewart reveals that birds use them in surprising ways. Her two-level text is headlined with a comparison and includes a short paragraph of explanation. Laid out like a scrapbook, her words share a page or spread with accurate and appealing watercolor images of a bird (identified by species and location), the everyday object in question and the feather. From backyard blue jays and cardinals to exotic manakins and peacocks, the 16 birds used as examples come from all over. The rosy-faced lovebird in Namibia carries nesting material in its tail feathers, like a forklift. For the Alaskan winter, a willow ptarmigan grows feathers on its feet that serve as snowshoes. In Mongolia, a Pallas' sandgrouse uses his spongelike belly feathers to soak up water to bring to his nestlings. On a concluding spread, text and illustrations together provide an example of one possible system of feather classification. Sepia-toned endpapers show some of the feathers described. Other than a note about Birdwatching magazine, the author doesn't indicate her sources, but considerable research by both author and illustrator is evident.

The combination of thoughtful approach and careful crafting makes this an excellent resource for early nature study.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Compact, consistent entries, most set in attractively composed double-page spreads, focus on the many ways in which birds benefit from their feathers. Some uses are not too surprising, such as the wintry Maine blue jay's feathers that "trap a layer of warm air next to its skin" or the peacock's glorious feathers that help him attract a mate. The book, though, also features plenty of feather utilities that kids (and adults) may not have known or carefully considered, such as the club-winged manakin's ability to make "squeaky chirping little trills" with its curved and ridged feathers, or the spongy feathers of the Pallas' sandgrouse, who uses them to bring water to his nesting chicks. Each bird gets a lovely portrait set in its habitat, captioned with its identity and a precise geographic location. A brief paragraph, just the right length for classroom or storytime sharing, explains the utility of the bird's plumage, and the entries are unified by a line of oversized font that runs across the tops of the spreads and compares feathers to a familiar human device: "Feathers can dig holes like a backhoe . . . or carry building supplies like a forklift." Beautiful and concise, this is an excellent resource for units on animal adaptation, and a treat for the youngest bird lovers. An author's note on research, and a caution concerning the prohibitions on gathering wild bird feathers, are appended.


Feathers are deceptively simple marvels of adaptation, providing not just locomotion for birds, but also protection, warmth, decoration, and comfort. This book celebrates the amazing versatility of these easily recognizable objects, which young readers might find right in their backyards. Vividly rendered watercolor illustrations of feathers in life-sized scale complement the straightforward text that describes 16 species of birds and the unexpected functions of their feathers. Common birds, such as jays, cardinals, penguins, and swans, share pages with more exotic species, like the rosy-faced lovebird of Namibia and a type of sandgrouse found in the Gobi Desert. Stewart describes how chicks suck on the wet feathers of their parents to quench their thirst and how males of some species can play a type of high-pitched, squeaky love song by shaking their wings to attract female mates. Part science journal, part read-along nonfiction, Feathers succeeds in what such science books for young readers should strive to do: help young minds spot the extraordinary in the seemingly mundane.

The Horn Book

Birds and the remarkable variety of their feathers are the focus of this beautifully illustrated volume. In addition to their use for flight, feathers of all shapes and sizes provide birds with warmth and cooling, protection from the sun, and the ability to dig, swim, or glide. On each double-page spread, designed to evoke a bulletin board, the simple main text (in larger font) points out the primary functions of the featured feathers, while text boxes present facts specific to the representative species featured, along with small images of objects used by humans that are analogous to each feather's purpose (e.g., sun block, life jacket, umbrella). Brannen's delicate watercolors include pictures of birds in action using their feathers for various purposes as well as wonderfully detailed close-ups of the feathers themselves. Some of the ideas can be conveyed with a picture of a single feather; others are illustrated by several feathers from a single bird, as in a striking image of the five different feather structures found on the familiar blue jay.

NSTA Recommends

Did you know that feathers are not just for flying? All birds have feathers, but no other animals do. Adults and children alike will find the information and fascinating illustrations help to tell an intriguing story of our feathered friends!

This book is a treasure! Did you know that some feathers can whistle? Can other feathers crumble into a duster powder to help scour away dirt and oil? Feathers may even help a bird glide across ice and snow! The author Melissa Stewart has connected many of the fine feathered features to common objects of our own lives. Using a scrapbook style for the true–to–life illustrations, we immediately become engaged in this personal approach to observing sixteen different birds from various geographical areas around the world.

We find additional information at the back of the book in Kinds of Feathers which is a showcase for ways that scientists study birds and classify many types of feathers. There is an Author’s Note wherein Melissa Stewart shares her methods of doing research and the importance of her personal observations in her own nature journals.This delightful book is a keeper!


ISBN: 978-1-58089-430-2

ISBN: 978-1-58089-431-9

ISBN: 978-1-60734-727-9 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-627-2 PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 6-9
Page count: 32
11 x 8 1/2

Correlated to Common Core State Standards:
Reading Informational. Grade 2. Standards 1, 3-8, and 10.
Reading Informational. Grade 3. Standards 1-5, 7, 8, and 10.

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No Monkeys, No Chocolate
Birds: Nature's Magnificent Flying Machines
The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound
Spit & Sticks