Feathers are a defining feature of birds but their size, colour, shape and arrangement varies widely between species. Feather morphogenesis involves reciprocal signalling between the dermis and epidermis of the feather bud, but it is unclear how species-specific feather differences are generated. Now,Eames and Schneider report that premigratory neural crest cells transplanted from quails into ducks form dermis that instructs the host epidermis to form quail-like feather buds, and vice-versa (see p. 1499). Quail and duck have distinct feather patterns and divergent growth rates. The researchers show that in quail-duck chimeras, donor neural-crest-derived dermis alters the spatial pattern and time of formation of host cranial feathers by altering the expression of members and targets of the bone morphogenetic protein, sonic hedgehog and delta/notch pathways. The researchers suggest that this marked spatiotemporal plasticity in feather development might facilitate feather evolution.