The Extravagant Beauty of Feathers

A new book spotlights the astonishing diversity of avian plumage

Male mandarins have colorful “sails” on each wing. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
This tail feather comes from a male red bird of paradise. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
The male and female golden-breasted starling share the same coloring. The edges of the feather above appear iridescent, like a peacock’s. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
The green color of the superb startling’s wing feathers is produced by microscopically structured surfaces that interfere with and scatter light. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
The golden pheasant is bathed in vibrant color. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
The Wilson’s bird of paradise is noted for its two long, curled tail feathers (a single tail feather, above), as well as the male’s dazzling mating dance. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
The wing feathers of the sunda minivet, a diminutive long-tailed bird, are actually about five times smaller than they appear in this photograph. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016
Some biologists believe the spots on the great argus’ wing feathers are meant to resemble seeds, to win over a female during mating season. Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage by Robert Clark, published by Chronicle Books 2016

Is there anything in nature that is both so extravagantly beautiful and so dang useful as a feather? It makes flight possible, insulates against heat and cold, and disguises, camouflages or flamboyantly advertises, sometimes depending on the season. Whether adorning a red bird of paradise in New Guinea, China’s golden pheasant, a Eurasian jay or a Mandarin duck, these intricate structures are a tribute to the power of natural selection, says Robert Clark, a New York City-based photojournalist whose new book, Feathers, appears in April. His plumage project began with an assignment to shoot bird fossils in China, and it has opened his eyes to an astonishing world of color and form. A feather is “innately more interesting than other still-lifes,” Clark says. “At one angle it might be purple, then you turn it and it’s green or blue. There are a million ways to place your camera, but the feather does most of the work.”

Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage

Exquisite images from award-winning National Geographic photographer Robert Clark offer a captivating perspective on the vast beauty and myriad functions of a seemingly simple thing: the bird feather.