You should preorder so that you can post this on the preorderer's modding subforum. There's no real reason, besides you getting to be part of the cool guy's club.
You've been playing multiplayer so I assume you've got a friend who has already preordered. Is he going to post here at all?
Triangles vs quads - as far as the PC is concerned, a quad is 2 triangles. However, most editing programs show "faces" - which can be tris, quads, or even n-sided polygons like pentagons or octagons. If a model shows 400 quads, that's 800 tris, but a model with 300 quads, 90 tris and 10 pentagons has 720 tris.
When it matters (like in lowpoly modeling for mobile games), it's easiest to tell the tri count since it's instantly clear exactly how many faces there are in the object.
Normal maps can be generated from a highpoly model. You don't need the texture, but you do need to have the lowpoly model unwrapped.
You can also generate normal map from an image (such as the texture) using xNormal or CrazyBump or other such program.
Try looking for references.
Rio focused on birds, try to see if you can find a making-of video of the wings.
Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 both have several bird characters, but IIRC all didn't have feathered wings.
Stuart Little 2 had two birds in named roles, and Margalo (the smaller one) seems like a good reference for this project.
Big Buck Bunny, a Blender open-source movie, had a fully rigged bird in a minor role (it's seen during the opening). All the project files are free too, so you can actually download the files and see the rig in action.
Here's an old tutorial for rigging a bird wing for animation (not games) in an outdated version of Blender. It's not usable as-is, for various reasons, but like in your drawing, the wing feathers are divided into several areas.http://blenderartists.org/forum/showthr ... ing-part-1
You can't translate movie rigging to game rigging straight away. Having dozens of bones in the wings makes animation calculations heavier and slows down the game. There's a few ways around this. One would be to use blend shapes / shape keys
. They're basically a way of saving animations made in Blender using unlimited number of bones and modifiers into a mesh. For the computer, blending between the normal mesh and the blend shaped mesh is easier than calculating an animation with several bones on the fly. However, I doubt you'd want to have too many blend shapes around. There can be a dozen or so at least, since they're used for facial animation. Several blend shapes can also be blended together - for example, right eye open, left eye half-open, mouth open, mouth shaped to make an 'E' phoneme.
One problem with blend shapes is that you need to control them from the script side.
You could also try to get by only using a few extra bones for the feathers. You would have to make new animations where the feather movements and the hand movements are synchronized. It is lots of work, though, and getting it to work properly in all situations will probably take a lot of trial and error.
Also I've got no idea if we can make the feathers act with physics yet - this is just an alpha, and I don't think modders have tried adding custom jiggle physics yet.