Barve led a new study to examine feathers across 249 species of Himalayan songbirds, finding that birds living at higher elevations have more of the fluffy down—the type of feathers humans stuff their jackets with—than birds from lower elevations. Published on Feb. 15 in the journal Ecography, the study also finds that smaller-bodied birds, which lose heat faster than larger birds, tend to have longer feathers in proportion to their body size and thus a thicker layer of insulation.
The research was inspired by a tiny bird called a goldcrest during a frigid morning of field work in the Sho-kharkh forest of the Himalayas. Barve found himself wondering how this bird, which weighs about the same as a teaspoon of sugar, was able to flit about the treetops in icy air that was already numbing his fingers. Shoving his hands back into the pockets of his thick down jacket, the question that formed in Barve’s mind was “Do Himalayan birds wear down jackets?”