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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Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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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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Happy birthday to our hawk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a landmark law that protects bird species worldwide. To honor and celebrate this milestone, organizations and citizens have teamed up to designate 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” We at the Lake County Forest Preserves in Lake County, Illinois are celebrating another bird-related milestone this year as our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turns 30 years old.

Our education red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) turned 30 years old this year. Photo © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark.

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