Body feathers are important to many interactions birds have with their physical and social environments, such as streamlining the body for flight, thermoregulation, and social signaling. Birds differ dramatically in the texture of their body plumage depending on species and age class, likely reflecting different functional demands and age-related trade-offs in feather production. Despite the important insights potentially offered by studying variation in the structure of body feathers, there is no clear system for quantifying this variation. We present methods for quantifying age and species differences in the structure of body feathers. Most variation in our measures is due to species and age-class differences, with little variance attributable to individual birds or to differences among feathers sampled from the same bird. We use our measures to test the hypothesis that the loosely-textured plumage characteristic of many juvenile passerines reflects a trade-off between investment in feather quality and rapid body growth that promotes early fledging. The structure of juvenile feathers was negatively correlated with duration of the nestling period among ten species of New World warblers (Parulidae), suggesting a trade-off between investment in feathers and investment in rapid somatic development promoting fledging. Systematic studies of variation in the structure of body feathers will likely offer numerous other insights into avian biology.