Wing Feathers – Draw a Bird Day

It has been a while since I participated in Draw a Bird Day. I was happy to see some bird drawings in my blog reader this morning and decided to get inspired. I’ve been mostly sketching lately and none of the results have looked quite showable. But I did have a partially coloured drawing of some bird wings. And now, it’s fully coloured!

When I look at open and folded wings in bird photos, I often wonder – how do they fold and which feathers go where? John Muir Laws came to the rescue! The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds explains all this with beautiful illustrations. My two wing drawings are based on his illustrations of a passerine wing (dark grey with two white wing bars… I don’t know the species… some kind of flycatcher???). I did a good job of illustrating the layout of the different feather groups, but oops, I forgot to count the secondary feathers. Both wings should show 9, but my folded wing shows 8 and the open wing shows 12. Passerines have 9 secondary feathers and the last 3 are called tertials. Some non-passerine birds, like gulls, have more than 3 tertials.

In a recent sketch of a Scarlet Tanager in flight, I did count the primary and secondary feathers before drawing them. But it’s an oops for another reason. The way I drew the primary coverts and greater secondary coverts doesn’t make sense because, in a partially folded wing, the primary coverts slide under the greater secondary coverts. I misinterpreted the photo (Cape May Bird Observatory blog)! Oh well, I learned something.

Primaries and secondaries form two feather groups because the primaries attach to the “hand” bones, while the secondaries attach to the ulna (forearm). The alula feathers attach to the “thumb” bone. No flight feathers attach to the humerus (upper arm). Long-winged birds, like albatrosses, have longer humerus bones than other birds and have “humeral” feathers in this region. However, I haven’t found any information about where the humerals originate (the humerus? the humeral tract?).

Happy Draw a Bird Day!


    • Hi Tanja :-). I’m so glad you found the illustration helpful and I hope you have a go at drawing some wings. I find drawing helps me visualize birds and notice things I didn’t notice before. Youtube videos of people manipulating bird wings are pretty helpful too.

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  1. This is the first post I have ever reblogged, I think! And much the most helpful illustration / explanation on the topic, too (those little B&W ones in bird books are never very memorable, are they…). So, thanks for this! RH

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    • Thanks for the reblog RH. I’m honoured! Glad you found the drawing helpful. I agree that not all wing illustrations are as clear as others :-). I hope to get around to drawing some gull, duck and shorebird wing illustrations soon, as they fold their wings a bit differently.

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  2. Well-done! I may have mentioned a bird art class I took some years ago. We were lucky enough to have access to the Field Museum’s collection of birds and this is exactly the sort of study that we would do. I have plenty of “oops” on my score card, but it helps so much to know the underlying structure, doesn’t it?

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    • Oo, that bird art class sounds fun!!! The museum of natural history here has been closed for a few years but the new one is supposed to open some time this year. Looking forward to it. I remember you telling me about a teacher who would walk around the university buildings to collect birds who had met unfortunate ends after window strikes. Was this the same class?

      The underlying structure is so interesting and it explains how things move. It would be easier to visualize if I could hold a real bird, but I’m having fun imagining the motion by looking at anatomical drawings and at photos of birds with wings in different positions. πŸ™‚

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      • You are doing a great job, too. I don’t think I would have the observational skills to have taught myself, as you have.
        Both of those classes were great. The man who collected fallen birds was my college ecology teacher. He introduced us to prescribed burning for prairie restoration and is one of the 2 teachers who changed the direction my life took. The second one was through the Chicago Art Institute. I hope the new museum near you will offer a similar class!

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  3. Your birds are just great! And these drawings (and explanation) of feathers are over the top. I’m vacationing in Florida and seeing water birds I’m not familiar with. Great fun to add new birds to my life list.

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    • Thanks very much for the awesome compliment, Marian! Glad to hear you hare having fun in Florida and seeing new birds. I’m so excited for you!!! I’m always happy to see The Wednesday Studio’s monthly birds. Your latest blue jay is spectacular with his intricately patterned feathers and different shades of blue. πŸ™‚


  4. I knew that it’s difficult to draw birds, but I have never thought about how difficult it really is. Primary coverts, secondary feathers – I didn’t know anything about that. If I come to think, there are so little I really know about birds. Thank you for educating me, Myriam! πŸ™‚

    Birds are truly magnificent creatures! πŸ™‚ And your illustration of wing is beautiful! πŸ™‚

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    • Thanks, Hanna! I’m so happy you enjoyed the illustration. So many interesting details to animal anatomy. I hope I get around to doing some drawings of the wing bones. I think it’s super cool that the primaries and secondaries are attached to bones while the coverts are attached to skin. πŸ™‚

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