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.

Nature at night

Post by Jen Berlinghof

This winter’s lack of snow has made enjoying the winter woods a little more difficult for me. So, when a scant few inches of snow fell last week I made my way to Old School Forest Preserve at dusk to explore one of the Lake County Forest Preserves solar-lit trails.

Inky black branches of old oaks played in contrast to the white-washed sky before the blush of an orange sherbet sunset took over. The woods were still and quiet as I searched for any signs of crepuscular creatures that capitalize on the twilight. Continue reading

Des Plaines River Trail—Route 22 to Lake-Cook Road

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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It was a new year and a new trail, as we completed the last leg of our Des Plaines River Trail journey to hike the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. We began this hike just south of Route 22, which led us south through the recently completed trail section and beyond to the southern border of the county. We left our tracks upon the trail, just as the animals do along this greenway. Along the way, we found fresh signs in the snow that mice, squirrels, small birds, raccoon, deer, fox and even some intrepid fat-tire cyclists had all traversed the trail before us, taking advantage of a balmy 40-degree day in January. Continue reading

“Whoo’s awake? Me, too!”

It was a cloudy morning just before dawn. As the sky lightened in the east, threatening storms became even more illuminated. I began to wonder if getting up this early for a bird count was going to be worthwhile. Still groggy with sleep, I crept out of the car and heard the distinctive “peenting” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) calling throughout Middlefork Savanna. The storms held off as a fellow naturalist and I headed down the trail, our eyes adjusting to the dim light of dawn. As we approached the craggy branches of an oak tree, we spotted the stocky body and characteristic “ear” tufts of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) hunched over its breakfast. If we heard or saw nothing else on this hike, I knew at that moment, getting up early was worth it. Continue reading