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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Here comes the Sun (Lake)

Post by Brett Peto

The sky to the west was robin’s egg blue, a clearing in the day’s dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting. I drove with the radio off. I didn’t know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I’d packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy, or maybe not. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

For this month, I decided to revisit the idea behind my February 2019 post, when I explored a new-to-me preserve and wrote up my observations as a virtual tour. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed circling another name on the map I keep at my desk. So, here I was, about a year later, ready to chronicle another tour. Find a comfy chair and a warm mug. Here’s a snapshot of Sun Lake as I saw it.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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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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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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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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Goldenrod galls

September in Lake County, Illinois is a month of big sky punctuated by tips of tall prairie plants in an array of autumnal colors. Before the trees really get going with their own colorful show, sparks of bright yellow from the many varieties of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) dominate the open spaces. Most of the summer these plants go unnoticed, adding merely another green hue to the lush surroundings, but September is their time to shine. What may also go unnoticed, even now as goldenrod demands our attention, is the hidden world inside each plant in the form of a gall.

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A screech-owl’s story

Last week, many of us who work at the Lake County Forest Preserves had to say a sad goodbye. Our resident eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) passed away in the middle of the night. This male owl had spent the past seven years as an ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves, teaching thousands of people about the adaptations of raptors and owls. I have seen time and time again—from school children on education field trips to adults attending special events—a person’s eyes lock in and a look of amazement wash over them upon meeting this charismatic bird.

Sadly, his story is not uncommon. This particular bird was recovered in January 2004 as a juvenile. He was found by a concerned citizen in a driveway in Round Lake, Illinois with obvious head trauma and his left eye swollen and filled with blood. He was taken to Barnswallow, a raptor rehabilitation center in Wauconda, Illinois. It is suspected that this screech-owl was hit by a car, but he also had tiny sores on his talons and translucent, sheared tail feathers. These latter symptoms are signs of secondary viral infections caused by the West Nile Virus. After spending 16 months at the rehab facility, he was deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild due to the uncertainty of his eyesight in the injured eye. In the spring of 2005, he came to live in his very own mews (i.e. flight cage) near the farm area at Ryerson Woods. There he joined another resident bird, a red tailed-hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Continue reading