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My Column: In Praise of Feathers

My column in The Record today is in praise of feathers.

(Can you identify these three feathers found in Northern New Jersey? (Answer at the end of the column, below.)

You can download it here:

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By Jim Wright

Special to The Record

After 12 years of Bird Watcher columns, I’m finally writing about feathers. I can’t explain why it took me so long.

 Feathers (and feathers alone) are what makes birds unique from all other animals. That’s right -- not their eggs, beaks or wings. JWright THe BirdWatcherTheRecordBergenEdition_20210204_LF03_0-page-001 (1)Feathers, made of the same substance as our fingernails, are what defines birds.

I’ve had an enduring fascination for feathers ever since childhood. They are so light, so luminous at times, so incredibly well-engineered. I see the fringe-like leading edge of an owl’s feather, which allows the owl to fly in silence, and I stand amazed. 

    Like most folks, I’ve always known little about these miracles of nature. For example, I’d always heard that possessing bird feathers is illegal, but I wasn’t sure if that was true. Was it a serious crime or one of those weird federal decrees, like tearing a label off a pillow?

And I’ve wondered if it was safe to touch or hold feathers. I’d heard that birds attract all sorts of tiny critters. 

To answer these and other pressing questions, I went to one of the world's foremost authorities on feathers, Pepper Trail. He’s a forensic ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the coordinator of The Feather Atlas of North American Birds.

I began by asking if owning bird feathers is illegal. 

“Most people are unaware that possessing the feathers of most birds is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Trail says. “The Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement is not out looking for cases of simple feather possession, but we do investigate cases involving the sale of feathers, which are far more frequent than you may expect.” 

 Trail adds that individuals investigated for other crimes may face charges of feather possession if they have the feathers of protected birds.

As far as health concerns associated with having feathers, Trail says: “There generally aren't any. But that's a moot point since possession is prohibited. So, continue to enjoy, appreciate, and photograph feathers - but don't keep them.”
    According to Trail, there are a few exceptions: “Turkeys and other non-migratory gamebirds are not covered by the MBTA.  And feathers of non-native birds, like ring-necked pheasants, peafowl, and cagebirds like domestic parrots are also legal to possess.”
    If you’re interested in collecting feathers for educational or research purposes, Trail suggests applying for a special permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some states also have their own permit procedures.
    Information on how to apply is here:
    To get help on identifying a feather you’ve found, go to: .
    Answer to the photo: Pepper Trail says:The top feather appears to be a red-shouldered hawk tail, the middle a Cooper's Hawk tail and the bottom a pileated woodpecker secondary.”

The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Email Jim at [email protected].