Bird Feather Identification

Bird Feather Identification
Chancing upon a bird feather on the ground can be a tantalizing experience. Ethereal souvenirs from the skyway, these shed feathers offer some clues to their source, and are a way of identifying even species rarely spotted in the flesh.


Difficulty: Moderate

Things You’ll Need:
  • Measuring tape Field guide Camera Field notebook
  • Measuring tape
  • Field guide
  • Camera
  • Field notebook
Step 1
Familiarize yourself with basic bird-feather vocabulary. Primaries are the long flight feathers at the tip of the wing (in large soaring birds like raptors, these look rather like outspread fingers). Secondaries are those flight feathers between the primaries and the tertials, usually somewhat shorter. Coverts are smaller feathers overlying the base of the flight feathers above and below the wing and the tail. Tertials are the few flight feathers nearest the bird's body, at the wing's lower base.
Step 2
Measure the length and width of the feather. As North American birds range widely in size, so too do their feathers. A downy woodpecker may have primary feathers of six or seven centimeters; a wood stork's may be six times that (see Reference 1).
Step 3
Look at the coloration of the feather. Some birds, such as crows and northern cardinals, have uniformly-colored feathers. Many, however, have a mosaic of color in a variety of patterns: speckles, spots, bands, simple gradients.
Step 4
With size, color and pattern recorded, start thinking about your location. What's the immediate habitat? Where are you geographically? These spatial details can weed out possible candidates outside your range.
Step 5
Cross-reference all of the above with a good field guide. Even if you can't find a resource specifically about feathers, comparing your found feather with paintings or photographs of birds and their plumage can help you make some headway. Some websites offer keys to selected bird-feather identification (see Resources).

Tips & Warnings

Take a picture or make a sketch of the feather. This will aid in identification and allow you to leave the feather where you found it (collecting is often prohibited - see below). Furthermore, such depictions can easily turn into artwork.
The feathers of North American migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty, which means you can't collect them without special permit (unless you're a hunter with a legally-taken migratory waterfowl or shorebird species). Feathers from some other birds fall under Endangered Species Act protection or other regulations. Check with a local wildlife agency before collecting feathers (see Reference 2). Better to leave them where you find them.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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