Hey, Bird! You Lost Something! How to Identify Feathers

Feather in the grass. Photo by Wiki Creative Commons.

So, you’re walking along, you glance down, and there it is, a gift from nature: a feather. On occasion its source is obvious—if it’s winter in the Midwest and the feather is reddish, it’s from a cardinal. Often, though, the feathers we find are harder to identify.

If you have a smartphone or camera with you, take a photo of the feather, both front and back. Include in the photo an object whose size is known, such as a coin or even your fingers. The length of a feather is important in figuring out who dropped it.

It’s okay to pick up the feather and examine it, but don’t take it home with you. It is illegal to possess the feathers of wild birds—except for those legally hunted. Here’s a link explaining the law. The purpose of the law is to protect birds from being killed for commercial purposes, and that’s a good thing!

Now, back to identifying that feather. There is one field guide to feathers, titled Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species, by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland, published in 2010 by Stackpole Books. But in case you don’t have it on your bookshelf, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a helpful and fascinating website titled “The Feather Atlas: Flight Feathers of North American Birds,” at fws.gov/lab/featheratlas. There, you can choose “Browse Scans” to view the wing and tail feathers of 404 species of North American birds! But that might take hours of searching to find one that matches the feather you found. You can also go to “Search Scans” to type in the common name of a bird to see what its tail and wing feathers look like. For example, if your feather is pinkish, you might suspect that it came from a cardinal. So, you can use the search tool on the USFWS’ feather atlas website and type “northern cardinal” into the common name field, and then press “search” to see all the wing and tail feathers of both male and female cardinals.

The Feather Atlas on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

But if you have no idea what kind of bird dropped this feather, there’s also an ID tool to help you figure it out. Visit the USFWS’ feather atlas website to answer questions about the feather you found, including: pattern, color, size (length), position (tail or wing), and type of bird (for example, waterfowl, hawk, woodpecker). Each time you answer questions describing the feather you found, the possibilities will be narrowed from all 404 species in the database to only those that match what you describe. Don’t worry if you don’t know whether the feather is from the tail or wing (or elsewhere), or what type of bird it came from. You can get a long way toward figuring out the feather based on its length, color, and pattern.

Let’s consider pattern. Perhaps the feather is solid white, or black. That would be unpatterned. Or, maybe it’s distinctly two-toned, mottled, barred, or spotted. Perhaps it has a dark tip, or pale tip. Does it show iridescence (a metallic sheen)? In the Feather Atlas’s ID tool, click on “Pattern,” and then choose the one or more that describe the feather you found. At the bottom of the page, click on “Next Selection.” It will take you to “Color.” Choose a color scheme that best describes the feather, and again, at the bottom of the screen, choose “Next Selection.” It will take you to “Size.”

Would you estimate that the length of the feather is shorter than three inches (small), three to six inches (medium), six to 10 inches (large) or longer than 10 inches (huge)? Check the box that best matches your feather, and click on “Find Similar Feathers.”

There, you’ll find the wing and tail feathers that match what you’ve described. Depending upon the uniqueness of the feather you found, this search might result in just a handful of similar feathers, or hundreds.

If your description resulted in hundreds of feathers from dozens of species, it might help to take a guess at the type of bird it came from. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders are likely suspects if you’re near a beach. And of course, if you live in North Dakota, a feather you find is not likely to be from a limpkin (found primarily in Florida). You can choose more than one type, so if you found the feather under your bird feeder, it was probably from a dove, a woodpecker, or a songbird. If you were in the woods, and the feather is larger than six inches, it probably came from a hawk, an owl, or perhaps a game bird, such as a wild turkey. Make your best guess as to the type of bird. Then try “Find Similar Feathers.”

That should narrow your search a lot, but if there are still too many to choose from, you might need to figure out where on the bird the feather was located. Most of the feathers people find are the long, sturdy flight feathers, and not the short, fluffy, delicate, insulating body feathers or the small feathers on top of the wings and tail, all of which are less conspicuous and disintegrate quickly. Flight feathers protrude from the wings and tail. Often the wing feathers we find are the primaries—the finger-like feathers that trail from the wing tip—or the secondaries, those that trail between the primaries and the body.

Feather sketch by M. Gottrop / Wikimedia Creative Commons.

(Primaries are labeled 1; secondaries are labeled 4). The primary feathers are pointed and asymmetric in shape (and sometimes in color), whereas the secondaries are rounded and symmetric.

The shape of the tail feathers varies depending upon their locations, with the outermost being asymmetric, and the central feathers symmetric. Their pattern sometimes depends upon their location on the tail, too.

Thrush tail feathers photo by L. Shyamal / Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Secondary wing feathers and tail feathers have a similar shape (rounded and fairly symmetric), so if the feather you found is asymmetric in shape and pointed, you’re in luck: It’s a primary, which will narrow your search by about a third! If you’re not sure whether the feather is a secondary wing feather or a tail feather, you can choose both of those options, too, and continue your search.

It’s fun being a feather sleuth, but it’s not always easy to come to the correct conclusion. Good luck!

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