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.

The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Get to know groundhogs

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Late last summer, I literally watched a groundhog (Marmota monax) fatten up before my eyes. He’d made a burrow in the field outside my office window and frequently visited the rain gardens around the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center in Riverwoods, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. We watched him scamper back and forth, snipping flower tops here and there, always with a mouth crammed full of flora.

Fast forward to early February, and as I look out across the same field, now dotted with small snow drifts punctuated by tufts of grasses gone tawny, I think about that groundhog curled tight in his burrow and deep in hibernation, oblivious to the hubbub of a day in his honor.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
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The din of the dog days

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The dog days of summer are a bounty for the senses. We see the lemon-yellow of whorled sunflower blooms, taste the ripe flavor of a homegrown tomato, smell the spicy sweetness of bee balm flowers, feel the heat of the day and the cool of the evening. Yet the most quintessential sensation of these end-of-summer days is hearing the overwhelming cacophony of cicada songs around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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Turtle Champions

Post by Allison Frederick

109 adopted turtles!

bltu-20161104-004Our inaugural campaign to enhance conservation efforts and further protect an endangered species was a huge success. Donations poured in from Lake County and beyond (as far away as California!) to adopt baby Blanding’s turtles, allowing us to continue our head-starting program and field work next summer. Continue reading

Surviving in the subnivean

This winter has been harsh in Lake County, Illinois, causing many of us to wish we could migrate to South America like some birds do, or hibernate in a cozy underground den like the groundhog.  Alas, most of us just stick it out in the cold. It may offer consolation to know we are not the only animals active during these record-breaking cold, snowy days. It turns out there is a whole ecosystem teeming with life right under the snow.

Recently, scientists having been taking a closer look at life in the subnivean, which literally translates to “a place under the snow.” The space between the snow and the ground acts as a seasonal refuge for invertebrates, birds, and small mammals. Snow affords these small critters with remarkable insulation, and temperatures around 32 F regardless of the temperature above the snow. Biologist Bernd Heinrich explains the science underlying these insulating properties in the book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. “As long as both ice and water exist side by side, they constitute a thermostat keeping temperatures constant.” When water converts to ice crystals, heat releases. When ice turns into water, the process uses up heat.

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A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

Virtual camouflage hike

Leaves throughout the forest glowed gold against a backdrop of graying sky as I left Ryerson Conservation Area yesterday afternoon. This morning—as I entered the same preserve along the same road—the dark, skeletal branches were completely visible, stripped of their vibrant leaves that now lay in muddied piles on the forest floor.

These days of November mark a change from crisp colors to muted tones, which offer the perfect backdrop for animals to hide using camouflage. Lake County Forest Preserve educators often teach the concept of camouflage during environmental programs, where students hike in search of animal hides and mounts that have been hidden along the trail. Teachers and scout leaders, peruse our variety of school and scout programs to find a great fit for your group this year. Following is a virtual version of our camouflage hike. Continue reading

Crayfish tales

When most adults hear someone mention crayfish, what most likely comes to mind is a culinary dish rooted in the South. However, mention crayfish to a group of Summer Campers at the Lake County Forest Preserves, and you will see eyes light up and hands reach for pond-scooping nets and buckets while their minds contemplate questions of “how big?” and “how many?” During our hikes to the edge of a pond the campers exchange crayfish stories about the best techniques for catching these crustaceans, the size of earlier catches growing the closer we get to the water.

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