Novices' Guide to Wings and Wing Feathers

Fly Tying

On most species of duck there are some iridescent secondary feathers in an area called the Speculum. The colour of Speculum feathers is one method where the duck species can be identified from; Common Teal and Green-winged Teal: Iridescent green edged with buff, Blue-winged Teal: Iridescent green, Crested Duck and Bronze-winged Duck: Iridescent purple-bronze, edged white, Pacific Black Duck: Iridescent green, edged light buff, Mallard: Iridescent purple-blue with white edges, American Black Duck: Iridescent violet bordered in black and may have a thin white trailing edge, Northern Pintail: Iridescent green in male and brown in female, both are white on the trailing edge, Gadwall: Both sexes have white inner secondaries, Yellow-billed Duck: Iridescent green or blue, bordered white.

The primary (outer wing feathers) & secondary (inner wing feathers) feathers and tail feathers are often referred to as Quills and are typically used for the wings and tails on Wet Flies. The main difference between wing and tail feathers is that tail quills have equal width barbs (feather fibres) on each side of the stem, whilst wing quills are uneven which helps distinguish left-side from right-side. When a pattern calls for tail feathers to be used for a wing, the equal barb widths of these quills allows for easy matching of the slips. The wings of traditional Wet "winged" Flies use a slip from a left wing quill and a slip from a right wing quill placed together. The two quills ideally should be from the same position on the wing, this is to ensure that they match not only in size but shape and curvature, and the slips for the pattern's wing taken from the same part of the feather, again to match shape and curvature. The Butcher Blue is one pattern that uses Speculum feathers from a Mallard for its wing.

The location and recognition of Primaries and Secondaries feathers is often confusing to novice tyers. The primary feathers are those that are attached to the birds wingtip bones which correspond directly with human hands, and the secondary feathers are attached to the forelimb bones with are the equvalent to our forearms.

As a general rule-of-thumb, the primary feathers are typically asymetrical with a tapered, almost pointy shape although those close to the secondary feathers (inner primaries) can be more rounded in appearance.

If you look on the underside of most waterfowl primary feathers, you will notice a shiny, waxy-looking area on the barbs along the edge of the rachis. This is called tegmen but is often referred to as the 'Blood Line', although there is no blood within the fibres. The tegmen area of the barbs are thick, triangular in shape and have no barbules which means that they do not marry well together. These fibres do not compress when being tied in, rather they split apart resulting in a wing that separates and looks very messy. When tying wet fly wings, aim to tie the wing in on the softer barbs past the tegmen.

feather showing blood line area

The secondaries are the inner wing feathers and have a slighly asymetical shape with some being almost symetrical, the outer vane (leading edge) being a bit narrower than the inner vane. Below are left and right Swan secondaries.

Swan Secondary feathers against a black background

Notes: A feather's stem is sometimes referred to as the Rachis. The blue feathers from a Jay wing have a particularly strong rachis and are difficult to wrap unless they are split and the pith is scrapped out. The Quill (Calamus) is hollow and has no barbs because it is the part of the feather that is under the bird's skin. The Barbs which make up the Vane of the feather hold together by a series of microscopic hooks (called barbules) which lock together in a similar way to how velcro works. It is this locking together that allows fibres from different feathers to be joined together to make Married Wings for wet flies.

Mallard Quill

The Lower (Lesser) Marginal Coverts are found on the underside of the leading edge of the wing at the 'elbow', and along with the Secondary Coverts (also known as Marginal Coverts) they are used for the hackles on North Country Spider patterns due to them being short and soft (a texture sometimes referred to as "webby").

Mallard Lower Marginal Covert Feathers