Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

David Sibley’s tips for identifying found feathers

found feathers
Illustrations by David Sibley

Occasionally we run across loose feathers on the ground — sometimes a single feather, sometimes a bunch together (which usually marks the scene of a predator’s meal). Regardless of the situation, the same question always comes up: What species lost these feathers?

The best way to begin is to ignore color and instead study the shape of a feather. All birds share a similar structure, and simple rules will help you determine which part of the bird a feather is from. Knowing that, matching a feather’s color and pattern to a species becomes much easier.

Please note that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to possess any feather or other part of a native, non-game species. If you find feathers on the ground, it’s OK to handle them, study them, and take photographs, but it is against the law to carry any away with you.

All feathers curve toward the tail, and if you find a feather that is essentially straight, it’s likely to be a tail feather. The largest and stiffest feathers are on the wings and tail, and each of them has a distinctive shape that will allow you to determine exactly which part of the wing or tail it’s from, and (just for fun) which side of the bird.