Find­ing feath­ers leads to much more

The Calvert Recorder - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­[email protected]­

Last week as I was tak­ing out the trash, an ob­ject ly­ing in the drive­way caught my eye.

I was in a hurry, since like most trash days, I’d for­got­ten to put the bin out the night be­fore and the big green truck was al­ready back­ing down my street with the in­ces­sant “beep­beep-beep” alert­ing me to its ar­rival.

I rushed the can out to the curb in a blur and then kept my eyes trained to the ground as I caught my breath on the walk back.

As I neared a bend in the drive­way, I spot­ted a long black and gold feather. Then another. And another. There were 10 in all.

My first thought was that what­ever bird those feath­ers be­longed to prob­a­bly wouldn’t be need­ing them any­more. This sort of dis­cov­ery is a stark

re­minder that wild liv­ing is a game of sur­vival. I picked up the feath­ers to ad­mire them and walked in­side, ea­ger to iden­tify what species they came from.

I know a lit­tle bit about feath­ers since I have a few ex­otic birds for pets. The feath­ers I found were most cer­tainly flight feath­ers. I knew that be­cause they were stiff and asym­met­ri­cal.

Flight feath­ers are the feath­ers on the wing that a bird uses to con­trol lift, di­rec­tion and the amount of air resistance. These had spots and a bright yel­low shaft run­ning the length of each one. They mea­sured about 6 or 7 inches in length.

They couldn’t be from a small bird like a goldfinch and they prob­a­bly didn’t come from a Bal­ti­more ori­ole be­cause those birds mi­grate south for the win­ter. As a ded­i­cated birder, this was a mystery I needed to solve.

A stan­dard field guide isn’t usu­ally much help in sit­u­a­tions like these, as the out­ward ap­pear­ance of a bird won’t pro­vide many clues as to what an in­di­vid­ual feather might look like.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice web­site main­tains a com­pre­hen­sive feather iden­ti­fi­ca­tion re­source avail­able at­at­las/ id­feather.php. The feather at­las al­lows you to use just a few de­scrip­tive cri­te­ria from any feather you find to search among the nearly 400 species in the at­las for the likely can­di­date.

I en­tered in the search cri­te­ria “spot­ted” and “yel­low” and im­me­di­ately dis­cov­ered I’d found the flight feath­ers of an adult yel­low-shafted North­ern flicker.

Ah, I should have fig­ured that out on my own. I re­ally am get­ting for­get­ful in my mid­dle age. The north­ern flicker has yel­low on the un­der­side of its wings in the east, red in the west. Mystery solved.

Then I took those feath­ers and put them right back out­side where I orig­i­nally found them. They would have made a great ad­di­tion to my daugh­ter’s

col­lec­tion of na­ture items that she keeps in a shoe­box, and, with five daugh­ters, surely some­one would have wanted some cool feath­ers for hair ac­ces­sories or a craft pro­ject. But I knew that if I had kept those feath­ers I would have been break­ing a fed­eral law.

The Mi­gra­tory Bird Treaty Act, orig­i­nally en­acted in 1916 and fine-tuned over the past cen­tury, forbids reg­u­lar folks from pos­sess­ing feath­ers of na­tive North Amer­i­can birds.

The law doesn’t just pro­tect feath­ers, it ex­tends to nests and eggs, as well as the bird it­self,

dead or alive. Over 1,000 bird species are pro­tected by this law — al­most ev­ery na­tive bird that you could pos­si­bly name.

All of my fa­vorites are on the pro­tected list: north­ern car­di­nal, ruby-throated hum­ming­bird, red-wing black­bird, great blue heron, east­ern blue­bird, blue jay, chick­adee and ev­ery type of wood­pecker and owl. Even the hum­drum crows, cow­birds and grack­les have fed­eral pro­tec­tion. There are very few birds that live in or ven­ture into the United States that are not on the list.

You’ve prob­a­bly no­ticed some very large flocks of black­ish birds fly­ing around South­ern Mary­land this time of

year, land­ing on power lines and trees or de­scend­ing in droves upon fields and then all tak­ing off again in a dark swirling cloud.

Do you know which bird I’m re­fer­ring to? You can keep as many of their feath­ers as you wish. I’ll tell their story at the end of this col­umn.

Of course there are some ex­cep­tions to the rule. Bald and golden ea­gles are pro­tected by the MBTA, as well as by the Bald and Golden Ea­gle Pro­tec­tion Act. But mem­bers of fed­er­ally rec­og­nized Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes can get a per­mit to pos­sess and use ea­gle feath­ers in re­li­gious cer­e­monies. There’s even a Na­tional Ea­gle Re­pos­i­tory that

dis­trib­utes feath­ers for just that pur­pose.

The law could seem a lit­tle bit Dra­co­nian at first, per­haps over­reach­ing, but when you think about the na­tive birds that once flew in the skies or walked the coast­lines and are now ex­tinct (pas­sen­ger pi­geon, ivory-billed and im­pe­rial wood­pecker, great auk), the law makes sense.

One of the sad­dest stories in Amer­ica’s eco­log­i­cal his­tory is that of the Carolina para­keet.

With its red and yel­low head and bright green body, the plumes of the Carolina para­keet were highly sought af­ter as adorn­ments for women’s hats.

By the early 1900s,

there were none left in the wild, and the last cap­tive Carolina para­keet died in 1918. In fact, mil­lions of birds were slaugh­tered in the name of fash­ion, in­clud­ing snowy egrets, great blue herons and even tiny hum­ming­birds, which could be af­fixed to hats in­tact as unique dec­o­ra­tions.

The in­tent of the law is to pro­tect birds, and it’s im­pos­si­ble to know if a per­son got a feather off the ground or by caus­ing harm to a pro­tected bird. So, the next time you find a feather, you might want to think twice about keep­ing it. Un­less it be­longed to a Euro­pean star­ling. Those are the black­ish birds fly­ing around in huge flocks this time of year. They are an in­va­sive species and it’s all be­cause of the pop­u­lar­ity of Shake­speare’s plays that they are here.

Ac­tu­ally the fault lies with a wise fel­low named Eu­gene Schi­ef­fe­lin, who was a big Shake­speare fan and had the bril­liant idea to try to pop­u­late the United States with all the birds ever men­tioned in Shake­speare’s plays. Schi­ef­fe­lin re­leased 100 Euro­pean star­lings in New York’s Cen­tral Park in the late 1800s.

While sky­larks, bullfinches and nightin­gales didn’t fare so well, the Euro­pean star­lings took a lik­ing to New York. Now the North Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion num­bers more than 200 mil­lion.

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