Photo Credit: Kathleen Scavone
A feather is a teacher. Finding a single feather along a trail is a lovely gift from nature. Changing seasons can bring about a transition in the life of a bird. Birds molt or drop feathers as their plumage breaks down, typically in spring or summer, however some, such as tree swallows drop some of their feathers prior to winter migration, then miraculously resume their molt as they reach their desired destinations.
Some bird species molt only partially as they drop body and head plumage, leaving their primary flight feathers intact. It is usually the smaller bird species who can swap old feathers for new; and they achieve this once or twice. Larger bird species like egrets ‘know’ to swap out old feathers for new growth intermittently so that they are able to take flight with ease. This can take them a few years to grow all new primary and secondary flight feathers.
Some bird species may appear scruffy as they attempt to re-grow their shed feathers. I’ve noted evidence of turkey molts in the summer months when I find fluffy feathers littering the ground in large numbers. Their molt usually takes place near an indentation in the Earth where I’ve spied them taking a dirt bath in order to rid themselves of parasites or maybe pesky feathers that need replacing.
At times, a molted feather or two stubbornly clings to the bird, giving them a ‘bad hair day.’ Other feather finds I’ve happened upon tell a different story since they are not scattered loosely about the forest floor but are found in a shocking mound of soft, mature clumps- a reminder that nature can be cruel, but hey, everyone has to make a living.
Just like our hair and fingernails, a bird’s feathers are made of keratin. It’s interesting to think that most bird species have twelve tail feathers. Tail feathers, called rectrices, can vary in number but an even dozen is the most common number. A feather can teach you to ID the species by its color. For example, the vivid blue beauties seen near an oak woodland may be that of a scrub jay, while a large black and white feather may have drifted down from a turkey.
Uses of feathers by humans are numerous. Medieval manuscripts were written with quill pens, as was the Declaration of Independence. Some of us wear feathers inside a down vest or sleep with a cozy down bed cover. Feathers provide the basis of stories and myths. Who hasn’t marveled at the magnificence of a foot-long green and blue iridescent peacock feather?
Some say they symbolize beauty and good luck, or in Greek Mythology, they can symbolize protection. Feathers have been used for regalia and basket work of many Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years. Our local museums in Lake County have some fine examples of beautiful Native basketwork with feathers.
A super resource in which to learn all you ever wanted to know about feathers (or birds) but were afraid to ask can be found via our wonderful Lake County libraries, and it’s called ‘The Wonder of Birds- What They Tell Us About ourselves, the World, and a Better Future” by Jim Robbins. Another great place to learn more about birds is via our local Redbud Audubon both through their Zoom meetings, and in-person field trips. Their Facebook link.
A fascinating online site to view more Native traditional work with feathers can be found in an article called California Featherwork on Academia’s informative website.
One last feather tidbit is, in order to ID feathers you may want to visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas website.
The site also informs us that “Feathers are beautiful and remarkable objects. Under federal law, it is illegal to take them home.”