Quantification of feather structure, wettability and resistance to liquid penetration

Siddarth Srinivasan, Shreerang S. Chhatre, Jesus O. Guardado, Kyoo Chul Park, Andrew R. Parker, Michael F. Rubner, Gareth H. McKinley*, Robert E. Cohen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Birds in the cormorant (Phalacrocoracidae) family dive tens of metres into water to prey on fish while entraining a thin layer of air (a plastron film) within the microstructures of their feathers. In addition, many species within the family spread their wings for long periods of time upon emerging from water. To investigate whether wetting and wing-spreading are related to feather structure, microscopy and photographic studies have previously been used to extract structural parameters for barbs and barbules. In this work, we describe a systematic methodology to characterize the quasi-hierarchical topography of bird feathers that is based on contact angle measurements using a set of polar and non-polar probing liquids. Contact angle measurements on dip-coated feathers of six aquatic bird species (including three from the Phalacrocoracidae family) are used to extract two distinguishing structural parameters, a dimensionless spacing ratio of the barbule (D*) and a characteristic length scale corresponding to the spacing of defect sites. The dimensionless spacing parameter can be used in conjunction with a model for the surface topography to enable us to predict a priori the apparent contact angles of water droplets on feathers as well as the water breakthrough pressure required for the disruption of the plastron on the feather barbules. The predicted values of breakthrough depths in water (1-4 m) are towards the lower end of typical diving depths for the aquatic bird species examined here, and therefore a representative feather is expected to be fully wetted in a typical deep dive. However, thermodynamic surface energy analysis based on a simple one-dimensional cylindrical model of the feathers using parameters extracted from the goniometric analysis reveals that for water droplets on feathers of all six species under consideration, the non-wetting 'Cassie-Baxter' composite state represents the global energy minimum of the system. By contrast, for other wetting liquids, such as alkanes and common oils, the global energy minimum corresponds to a fully wetted or Wenzel state. For diving birds, individual feathers therefore spontaneously dewet once the bird emerges out of water, and the 'wing-spreading' posture might assist in overcoming kinetic barriers associated with pinning of liquid droplets that retard the rate of drying of the wet plumage of diving birds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20140287
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number96
StatePublished - Jul 6 2014


  • Binodal and spinodal
  • Oil repellency
  • Superhydrophobicity
  • Wetting of bird feathers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Biotechnology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomaterials


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