Tag Archives: feathers

Making Quill Pens

Why are quill pens so interesting? A regular pen is much easier to use. Perhaps making quill pens is part of the appeal.

Then again this is fun to do as part of colonial history. All of our country’s founding documents were written with quill pens. They look so elegant in the portraits.

The first requirement for making quill pens are the quills. These are feathers, but not just any feathers. Birds are covered with feathers of many kinds doing different things for the bird. A quill is a large wing feather.

choosing a quill for a pen
These two quills have the large shaft needed. One is from the left wing and the other from the right wing so they curve in opposite directions.

Birds have wings on both sides. The quills on one side curve to the left and on the other side to the right. Most people are right handed so the left curve was preferable as it curved away from the hand.

Another requirement was size. Bigger quills held more ink and wrote better. Goose quills were the most common as geese were raised for feathers and food. The best ones came from swans.

Making quill pens involves trimming the quill point
This was an older quill so the shaft was very hard. It tried to shatter, but a sharp knife did shave it down into a rounded point.

According to the 1912 Encyclopedia Britannica making quill pens was quite an industry. The quills were obtained and heated to a specific temperature. There was organic matter inside the quills and the heat made it easy to remove this. Then the points were cut at various angles depending on how the quill was to be used.

For “The City Water Project” activity making quill pens, the special heating and cutting are dispensed with. The quill is found, cleaned off and the end shaved or cut at some angle. Food coloring can be used in place of ink, although real ink is much better as it is thicker.

I’ve used vulture wing feathers and wild turkey feathers I’ve found on the hills or in the pastures. Both work well. This time a friend gave me a peacock feather to try. It worked well too. The main thing is to have a large quill.

Making quill pens is tested by writing with one
The quill pen was easy to write with. The line was a little uneven. It did leave a small blot. I didn’t dip it very far into the ink so I couldn’t write much each time.

This time too I had real ink. It worked very well even with the crude point I managed to cut. Making quill pens is a fun activity, but I prefer my ball point pens, an invention that appeared for sale in the late 1950’s.

Fall Feather Storm Time

Fall has arrived in the Ozarks. Between fall and the drought, leaves are turning and falling. Temperatures are cooling off. And the chickens have started their annual feather storm.

Feathers wear out. They get damaged and ragged. So birds replace their old ones with new ones every fall.

Chickens have lots of feathers. There are wing feathers. These are fun to make small quill pens out of.

The big quills are from big birds. Wild turkeys drop these out on the Ozark hills. Once I even found a vulture wing feather.

A chicken’s body is covered with feathers to keep their downy feathers dry. The down feathers look like a shaft of loose threads.

hen feather storm

Some hens never get real scruffy as the new feathers grow in before the old ones have dropped away. This hen has dropped many of her old ones and is still waiting for the new ones to grow in.

Molting time arrives in the fall and the feather storm begins. The hen house looks like the chickens have had a pillow fight. The hens are scruffy.

Everywhere the chickens go, the feather storm goes too. Along the chicken yard fence is paved with feathers. The milk room has pockets of feathers.

No, I don’t really like the chickens in the milk room. But the tin roof faces west and heats the room up to hot unless I leave the door open.

Feathers are made of protein so egg production has dropped. Some breeds stop laying now for the winter. I’m putting out more mice plus cheese to help supply more protein. Even extra milk helps.

rooster after feather storm

At three years old my old rooster is big. He now gleams under his new coat of feathers. His blue tail is starting to grow and will soon compliment his burnished bronze.

Roosters don’t lay eggs. My three have dropped their old feathers and grown new ones already. Their tails are the last feathers to grow in.

The old rooster has this spiffy new feather coat but no tail yet. The barred rooster has grown a single big feather so far. The arcana rooster never seems to have much of a tail.

It’s the hens who are still waiting for their new finery. The new feathers are starting to grow. They look like ranks of dark needles sticking out over their backs.

Once all the chickens have their new feathers, the feather storm will be over for this year. It will take longer to get rid of all the feathers blowing around.

Feathers for Flight

Feathers have a long lineage. Quite a few dinosaurs sported these colorful bits of keratin. Now they are the hallmark of birds. If a creature has feathers, it is a bird.

All feathers have a central shaft. This is the backbone on which the feather is built. It is stiff and hollow with a big pointed end that anchors the feather in the bird and a thin end at the other end.

flight feather

Nice chicken feathers are easy to find around the hen house but are similar to flight feathers on other birds. The central shaft is hollow so these were the quills, usually from geese, used to make pens. The easy way is to snip the end into a point with scissors.

Wing feathers have stiff branches lined thickly along the length of he shaft. These make the feather broad to catch the wind. Yet, stiff as they are, these branches would break if they had to work alone. Strength comes in forming a wall.

A brick wall uses mortar to glue the bricks together. Feathers use tiny hooked barbs. If you take a wing feather and pull some of these branches apart, you can feel the barbs pulling apart.

Wind can pull the barbs apart. This is one of the reasons birds preen. They are using their beaks to hook the barbs back together. You can do the same by pulling the open section through your fingers. It feels a little like sealing a zipper storage bag.

feather barbs

The fringe along the edge of the break in this feather is the line of barbs pulled apart. A bird preens to reconnect the barbs and stiffen the feather again.

As the barbs hold the feathers together, the wing holds the feathers in position. When all the feathers are held together to form a single shield, the wing catches a lot of air. Flapping such wings can carry a bird up into the sky and across a distance.

The wings work like sails on a boat. The sail are spread wide to catch the wind and propel the boat along. The sails are reefed to folded up to slow the boat. The jib can be moved so the boat can move forward in wind coming from different locations.

Vultures are fun to watch as they soar up in the sky. They do flap their wings to get up into the air. But after that they simply shift their feathers to catch or release warm air currents rising beneath their wings. To go up, the feathers gather so increase the amount of air they catch. To stay circling, the feathers are spread so not all the air is caught.

Wings spread flat catch the air. Wings pulled upward let the bird descend quickly. Wings pulled in close to the body let a bird like a hawk dive.

vulture landing

Notice how the tail and wing feathers are spread and angled to help this turkey vulture land.

Braking is another important wing function. Hitting the ground at over a hundred miles an hour is not healthy. Instead curving the wings slows the bird down on approach to the ground or a tree branch. Perfect soft landings.

Feathers do wear out or get damaged. Each fall birds molt or drop the old feathers and grow new ones.

The days of market hunting of birds for their feathers spawned a law against having most bird feathers in your possession. I still pick them up when I find the old ones lying on the ground in the fall.

Birds are so untouchable and unapproachable. I can’t blame them. An approaching giant might be hungry and they have no desire to become a meal.

Picking up a fallen feather is a way to better appreciate the birds I see up in the trees and skies. Besides, a feather is a marvel itself.


Read more about vultures in “Exploring the Ozark Hills.” Visit the Shop to find out more.