The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.

It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.

The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Finding only one feather isn’t unusual this time of year. After all, it is molting season. A worn feather will be pushed out of place by a fresh replacement feather, and the old one simply falls wherever the bird happens to be. So, it was likely a molted feather.

I evaluated its size next. It was a large feather, nine inches from tip to tip. Obviously, it was connected to a large bird yesterday. This made it easy to eliminate most of the birds that frequent my yard.

A feather’s colors are great clues to the overall coloration of the bird. This feather must have come from a large bird covered with various tawny shades of brown.

My conclusion was that a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) flew past my door during the evening and left a feather for me to discover in the morning. However, that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be positive about the identification.

Happily, I know the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosts a website called The Feather Atlas. Using the tools there, I selected the feather’s pattern, color, and size. This brought me to a page with pictures of many choices. After comparing the size, shape, and coloration amongst all the options, my best match was indeed a photo of feathers from a male great horned owl.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Feather Atlas is a useful tool for feather identification. Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas is a useful tool for feather identification. Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The label did specifically say male great horned owl, but I know you can’t tell the sex of an owl by its coloration, let alone a single feather. My feather was a primary flight feather, found along the front of the wing. Comparing feather in-hand to the photo, I could tell it probably was one of the primary feathers farthest from the leading edge.

A visual comparison of the types of feathers found on the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The major types of wing feathers. Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Finally, I knew the feather came from the left wing of the bird. I noticed the rachis that ran through the feather wasn’t exactly in the middle. The vane on the right side was much smaller than the vane on the left. The smaller, leading edge of primary feathers is built to withstand the stresses of flight.

The anatomy of a flight feather. Photo © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The anatomy of a flight feather. Photo © Gordon Ramel.

The analytical part of my brain was now satisfied with the identification, but I wasn’t done thinking about the feather.

I know feathers have held cultural significance for millennia, reaching as far back as ancient Egypt. People have long believed feathers bring messages from beyond, give clues to answers being sought, or even bestow a connection to deceased loved ones. In Native American traditions, feathers signify “trust, honor, strength, wisdom, power, and freedom.” Others simply believe that finding a feather is good luck.

A close-up of the feather that brought the author joy. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A close-up of the feather that brought the author joy. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A portrait of a great horned owl. Stock photo.
A portrait of a great horned owl. Stock photo.

While marveling at my feather’s beauty, I felt a lift in my spirit.

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks.

I found a feather today and it made me happy.

Please note: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibits the possession of feathers of native North American birds. It is illegal to possess feathers or take them home from natural areas without a permit. I returned my feather to the ground and went on a walk.

4 thoughts on “The joy of a feather found

  1. Thank you for the care you took in identifying your feather. My boyfriend/SO just came home from walking our dog and he had found a feather like yours. I took a photo of it and did a Google image search. Up popped the photo of the feather you found, which lead me to your article.

    We thought that only certain birds’ feathers were off limits so we also appreciate your comment about that.

    Wishing you happy good health…

  2. I found a similar feather in my yard. I had not checked I Naturalist yet, but wondered if it was a great horned owl. Recently A pair showed up on a fence, nearby, and I had a chance to be in awe of their size and coloration. Dead trees were cut and removed in this area and I am concerned it was their home. Oh, can I keep the feather if it was on my property?

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