How can we extract more information from the world around us?
And hey, look at that crow flying overhead with gaps in its wing feathers! Put the two together and you have one of my favorite activities, a bird feather identification and exploration mystery. By asking questions, along with some guidance on what to look for, kids and adults can be amazed by the answers in these bits of fluff.
First, find some bird feathers. You’ll want at least one for each person. It is fun to have a variety of kinds, from different parts of the bird – wing feathers, tail feathers, etc. Keep in mind that possessing migratory bird feathers without a permit is illegal!
Craft stores often sell legal feathers, though you will want them un-dyed. Of course, one of the best times to jump into bird feather identification is when you find a pile of bird feathers left by some obliging predator.
Once everyone has a feather, look for subtle ridges or dark and light bars running across the feather at a forty-five-degree angle. They are more evident on some feathers than others. We’re not talking about the individual strands, or barbs, but ridges similar to the ones running lengthwise on your fingernails.
One dark and light bar correspond to a night and day of feather growth. If they are close together, the bird could have used more protein. If they are far apart, the bird was well-fed. At this point, students usually chime in, “Like tree rings!” You can also hold the feather up to the light and see if any of those lines lets light through.
This means the bird was stressed as it was growing the feather that day. Maybe a predator made a grab at it, or there wasn’t anything to eat. You might find older feathers that have broken off along these weaker lines. When I raise baby chicks, and have to catch one for some reason, the next day there will be a visible weak line as their little wing feathers unfurl.
After this time exploring the details of the feather, I might ask, “Now imagine this feather is growing out of your body as if you were the bird. Where on your body would it be?” This is a good chance to talk about different feather shapes, which is important for bird feather identification.
Wing feathers tend to be curved and catch the wind. Tail feathers are less stiff than wing feathers, and flatter. Body feathers are soft and flexible. It’s always fun to come up with the crest feathers of a California quail or some bright pink feathers of a roseate spoonbill.
Looking at a pile of bird feathers from someone’s lunch, there can be clues to the predator’s identity in the larger feathers. Hawks will pull out the feathers with their beaks, leaving two crimp marks at the base of the feather. House cats, bobcats, or other felines will shear off the large feathers with their sharp back teeth.
Canine predators also chomp off the feathers, but their teeth are not so sharp, and so leave a ragged edge. Keep your ears open! If the kill is recent the predator may be nearby, with plenty of birds telling you about it. I have sat under a pine tree filled with shouting birds, while a pygmy owl plucked a warbler overhead and sent the yellow feathers drifting down on to my shoulders.
Maybe the feather you are examining isn’t from a kill site. Was it a worn feather, shed in the natural course of growing new clothes? Look at the tip farthest away from the bird’s body, and whether the soft part of the feather has worn down past the stiff quill in the center.
You will also note that the pale parts of the feather wear away faster than the dark parts. The dark pigment melanin is a very strong molecule that helps resist wear, and this is why so many otherwise all-white birds have dark wingtips. An old woodpecker feather, with its white spots along the leading edge, will develop a wavy edge as the white parts have worn away.
Reading the stories in feathers opens a world of molts and magic, where any pigeon feather in the gutter reveals the life of another being. Bird feather identification and exploration goes beyond field guides into asking questions that no one may have ever voiced before!
Look overhead at that gap-winged crow and wonder how it feels to grow your own clothes and transportation. Each of the twenty-five thousand feathers on a swan lets you know about that bird’s life, and you’ll never look at a feather duster or bird feather identification in the same way again.