Journal article Open Access

Thinking about Feathers: Adaptations of Golden Eagle Rectrices

Ellis, David H.; Lish, James W.

The striking black and white plumage of the juvenile Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) provides an excellent opportunity to examine the possible selective forces influencing the strategic placement of dark pigment in birds. The conflict between opposing selective pressures (first, toward large white patches, which may allay aggression in adults, and second, toward dark plumage to promote camouflage and limit solar and abrasive wear) provides the stage whereon are revealed a score of pigmentation traits of potential adaptive value. The general pigmentation trend is for zones that are more exposed to the sun to be darker than elsewhere. More specifically: (1) for rectrices and remiges, outer webs are darker than inner; (2) for those few feathers (e.g., central rectrices, some scapulars, and some tertials), where both inner and outer webs are heavily and nearly equally solar exposed, pigmentation is supplied similarly on both webs; (3) outermost primaries and rectrices are darkest of all and are structurally similar; (4) for central rectrices, subject to high levels of abrasion with substrate, the tip is paler (resultant flexibility may limit breakage); and (5) pigment is heavier along or on the rachis than on the webs. Many of the traits listed above for the Golden Eagle are also found in other families of birds. Traits of the tail common to many species were a terminal pale tip, a subterminal dark band, rachis darker than vane, and outer webs darker than inner for both remiges and rectrices. The most widespread traits likely have adaptive value.
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