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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Monogamous minks? Not quite.

Post by Brett Peto. All mink images and footage by John D. Kavc.

Yes, it’s almost that time of year. American mink (Neovison vison) mating season. I know, I’ve been waiting for it, too. February is celebrated for human romance: fancy dinner dates, shiny gifts, and long walks on the Des Plaines River Trail. But it’s useful to step out of our human-focused perspective once in a while. And thanks to our comprehensive Wildlife Monitoring Program, we know minks live in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. So, let’s examine why humans aren’t the only species that looks forward to February 14.

A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A mink (Neovison vison) peeks over a fallen tree. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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