Finding feathers leads to much more
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 at www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/ 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.