17 December 2019
When we find a feather we often wonder, “What bird dropped this feather? What species is this?” Here are some quick tips for identifying feathers.
Before we begin, keep in mind that without a permit it is illegal to collect and/or keep feathers of any native non-game species. You can touch feathers, flip them over, and take lots of photos but you must leave the feathers behind.
Photos are what you really need anyway. Include an object near the feather to give it a sense of scale (size). Remember the location and habitat where you found it so you know what species are possible. Now you’re ready to figure out whose feather it is.
First determine the feather type so you know where it came from on the bird’s body. At this point you don’t care about color.
In the wild you’re most likely to find tail, wing or contour feathers, the same ones you see on the bird. The descriptions below include parts of a feather vocabulary defined here.
- Rectrix (tail): Tail feathers (plural:rectrices) have barbs of equal length on both sides of the vane. (red arrows)
- Remige (wing): Wing feathers have short barbs on one side, long ones on the other. (yellow arrows short and long)
- Contour feather: covers the body
- Semiplume: insulation under the contour feathers
- Down: the warmest insulation near the skin
- Bristle: sensory vane near beak and eyes (unlikely to find)
- Fitoplume: sensory vane on wings (unlikely to find)
Next, think of birds with colors and patterns at that location on the body.
Ready for a quiz?
A. The feathers shown above are from a great spotted woodpecker eaten by a predator in Germany. What body part did they come from?
B. Here are two feathers of North American backyard birds. It’s a little harder to tell what body part they came from. (Length: red=9-10cm, blue=12-14cm) What do you think? Can you identify the species?
It’s challenging to identify feathers. Here are more resources to help.
- USFW Feather Atlas,
- David Sibley’s tips for identifying found feathers,
- Birdwatchers’ Digest Six Different Feather Types.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)