How to Identify Found Feathers

Here's a basic guide to the many types of feathers and their functions as well as links to guides that can help you identify the birds that shed them.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Kristy Johnson/Flickr

Have you ever found a beautiful feather while on a hike, picked it up and wondered whether you should keep it? Or maybe you have chickens and are hyperaware of hawks in the vicinity, and you want to be able to recognize traces of their presence. Like learning what bird made a nest or what snake shed its skin, identifying a bird by its feathers provides a clue about wild animals in your midst.

What Feathers Do

If you thought feathers were just for flying, think again. Consider that there’s more than 60 species of flightless birds and yet they all have feathers. Feathers serve at least 20 other purposes. Here are a sampling of feather functions.

Climate Control

Downy feathers and semiplume feathers can be fluffed up to trap air and keep warmth next to the skin. Birds can tuck their heads and settle their bodies onto their legs and feet to keep featherless areas snug and protected. To cool down, a bird can stick its head and feet out. To weather a storm, contour feathers provide rigid resistance to wind. Interlocking barbs as well as oily or waxy coatings help feathers repel water and grime.

Feeding Aids

Feathers help birds survive with the special ways they help birds eat. Herons and some other shore birds can use their wings to create shade that masks their silhouette, stealthily hunting and hiding from the view of fish below. Some fish-hunting birds swallow their own feathers to soften the impact of fish bones on their digestive tract. Feathers also help hummingbirds transfer pollen from one flower to the next. In this way, they are helping fertilize blossoms that produce seeds and provide more nectar-rich flowers for future feeding.

Communication Systems

Colors and patterns of feathers send overt and subtle cues to rivals, mates and family members. To see but not be seen, predators as well as prey benefit from camouflage. However, male birds are typically showier and bolder in order to attract females, although some birds’ colorful feathers are imperceptible to the human range of vision. The sound of feathers also sends signals—drumming, whistling and humming are a few ways birds get attention. Feathers can also mute sounds, such as the fringe on the edges of owl feathers that make these birds silent hunters.

owl feathers

Types of Feathers

The shape and placement of feathers on birds’ bodies are important to their function. When you find a feather, begin your identification by determining what type of feather it is.

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Wing Feathers

feathers wing flight feather

Typically asymmetrical, with a shorter leading edge to help with flight, these are also windproof because of interlocking barbs (the branches off the central shaft).

Tail Feathers

Symmetrical, with a stiff central shaft, tail feathers are sturdy steering aids during flight.

Contour Feathers

These cover the bird’s body and have interlocking barbs, plus downy fluff near the shaft’s base to insulate the body.

Semiplume Feathers

wild turkey feathers semiplume feather

A central shaft creates a typical feather shape but there’s less structure to these close-to-the-body feathers.

Down Feathers

Without a structural shaft, the lightweight fluff traps body heat and keeps a bird warm.

Legal or Illegal?

Unless you have a permit, it is a federal offense to keep any feathers or any other part, including nests, from a migratory North American bird. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was updated in 2004 to “not include nonnative species whose occurrences in the United States are solely the result of intentional or unintentional human-assisted introduction(s).” The challenge, however, is determining what kind of bird dropped its feathers that you want to pick up.

How to ID a Found Feather

First, take a picture of it, then leave it where you found it.

Second, narrow the possibilities. Consult a bird identification book for your region or an online guide such as eBird or Cornell’s All About Birds. Make a short list of birds you believe it could be, based on the color, size and season it has appeared.

bald eagle feathers
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Finally, consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife database of bird feathers, the Feather Atlas. It includes images of flight feathers of hundreds of birds in male, female and juvenile plumage. You can browse by family or enter a specific search term and then compare. For example, you might compare a bald eagle’s feathers with those of a grackle.

Wild birds, which are almost always beyond our reach, glide, flutter, soar and flap across boundaries. Found feathers offer distinct clues to the ecological impact of your property and provide a reason to pause and honor their ephemeral visits.

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