I know that feathers evolved from scales, but I was wondering if a bird could have feathers that kept the scales' "hardiness". For this scenario I want to go over a few things.

  1. Evolution

Evolution! You may have of heard of it. The idea that changed how we view biology and perhaps life itself. WELL, THROW ALL THAT OUT THE WINDOW BECAUSE WE ARE JUST GOING TO IGNORE IT! If a creature that had feather-like scales existed in the past that I just don't know about it clearly faded or evolved out of it for the more traditional feather, so we are going to ignore evolutionary pressure and just go with the fact that this bird has these just because.

  1. Our bird model

In this scenario we shall use the harpy eagle as our base of size and mass. Granted, some things might have to change due to the added weight the scale feathers might bring, but the size is something that can't be changed.

  1. The scale feathers

Now, I don't have a design for the scale feathers or know how much of the body they should cover, but they must at least be on the wings and on the back. We could make it so that there are normal feathers on the wings under the top layer of scale feathers, or perhaps the scale feathers could be hollow to reduce added weight. The scale feathers have too at least be durable enough to prevent a non-bodybuilder from bending them.

  1. Flight

This is our main goal: to get this scaly bird into the air! Now to specify, when I say flight, I don't mean gliding, I don't mean slowing descent, I mean true flight. It has to at least be able to fly so much that it uses the gift of flight in its hunting.

So what do you think, people of Worldbuilding StackExchange, can we give this bird a taste of the skies, or would the extra armor stop it from lifting off?

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    $\begingroup$ But what exactly is your question? Sure, it could be made to work. Are you asking for a specific detail of how? If bats can fly, tissue can fly. Or do you mean the wing is made of scales without tissue? It would be more like a modern aircraft wing then, and the trick is thrust. And do you mean the "off the skin" kind of stereotypical scale, or the small hard surfaces over tissue kind? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/118004/… $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus I suppose I was thinking of stereotypical scales but if it could be possible to have a hard surface formed over the feathers could maybe work, and I don't know what you mean by "scales without tissue". $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 4:32

2 Answers 2


I’m no evolutionary genius, but I think that with stereotypical overlapping scales covering the whole body might make it too heavy to fly. I saw that you said ‘true flight’, meaning that it is capable of sustained flight and can use it for life. So, based on this requirements, I looked at what the feathers do and then used that information to come up with my conclusion. Evidence So I looked up why birds have feathers and clicked on this link: https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/the-buzz/nature-curiosity-why-birds-have-feathers. It can be summarized to this quote, “ Muscles are attached to the base of each feather, which allows the bird to move them as needed. When in flight, as a bird flaps its wings down, the feathers move together. Then, as the bird moves its wings up, the feathers move apart to allow air to pass through. The motion of the feathers aids in flight.”

‘Scaly Wing’ Idea

So, for your ‘scaly wing’ idea to work, the harpy eagle analog is going to have to be able to move it’s scales. Otherwise, it will look (and fly) like Da Vinci’s flying machine. As per the quote above, the feathers themselves move. But as the scales are solid, they would have to rotate. It might work similar to a frilled lizards collar where they flare up, but instead they move sideways.

Final Thoughts

This sounds like a really fun idea, and I know you said to through evolution out of the window, but maybe the wings could work something like a ladybugs (hard outer wings for protection and inner wings for flying). Otherwise, you might be stuck with steerable gliding. One thing for certain is that your idea would need a smaller organism, hollow bones, and literally skin-bone-and necassary muscle only. It also would be a very energy intensive process and your creature probably couldn’t be a carnivore/hunter. You could make it a glider, like a flying fish, with scaly wings though.


Look to aircraft:

To make your organism work, we need to move past the traditional ideas of how organisms work. You don't want light, flexible, fragile wings, but hard, tough and rather heavy ones. This isn't traditionally how biological flight works. So here's what I imagine.

You organism looks very much like a small airplane. The wings are rigid and fixed, a grown set of fused scales backed by structural supports like struts. Instead of aluminum or steel sheets like on airplanes, you instead have keratin plates fused together in an elastic sheet with properties similar to a piece of plastic. The organism may be able to move the wings to control steering, or not. I'm guessing the lift properties will be better if they are fixed. That provides your aerodynamic flight surface.

The real trick will be to provide thrust. Weight is against you here. So here are the options:

  • Your wings are harmonically oscillated, so your organism has dragonfly-like wings that bend, flex and vibrate to lift. The materials will be more insect-like and need to be elastic, which makes them less strong.
  • Your organism grows special propeller-like structures that it then can detach, hook to muscular rotational parts of the body, and basically twirl them like hula hoops. You said to throw out evolution, and this would be extremely challenging to explain the evolution of, since such rotational parts don't exist in any organism I've heard of. But these structures could be quite large, essentially comprising a helicopter-like blade to provide lift. I am not sure how an organism could manage to have the leverage to spin these fast enough to work, but they could be almost whip-like in function. The organism could pluck special scales and have a sophisticated biological glue that allows it to assemble new flight surfaces or repair damaged ones as needed, rather than growing a single large structure.
  • Your organism can have a tail that functions as a huge fan, it's body undulating like a fan and pushing up with each wave. The motion would be akin to a whale or dolphin swimming. Your organism would be slightly snake-like, resembling a couatl ("feathered serpent") with a fan-tail.

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