Feather Identification Tips

What’s up with craft store feathers?

If you’ve ever made a seasonal kid’s craft, greeted garishly outfitted trick-or-treaters, or worn a feather boa, chances are that you’ve encountered craft feathers. You know, the ones that come in an array of fanciful, themed colors and, to be honest, look pretty cheap. Love ’em or hate ’em, there are an unfortunate number of misconceptions about what they really are.

Feathers Are Almost Always Real.

First off, they’re real. 100% of the time, unless they’re clearly made out of something like wood or paper, craft feathers are real. While there are a few decent replicas out there, there is no way to cheaply produce even vaguely convincing feathers on a large scale. Feathers have such a complex and microscopic level of detail that there’s no way humans could even begin to approach the level of detail found in the simplest of feathers. If it looks, feels, and moves like a feather, it’s a feather.

Most people don’t have much experience with feathers or birds, so they’re unfamiliar with what a feather should feel or look like in the first place. Here are some justifications I’ve heard from people who don’t believe that craft feathers are real, and I’ll explain why these viewpoints are flawed. (To see these justifications in context, check out these links: [1][2][3])

“They feel like plastic!”

When people say this, they are referring to the rigid, shiny quality of the central shaft of a feather, formally known as the rachis. While they may have the outward appearance of plastic, feathers and the rachis are made from keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails. Feathers are no more plastic than your fingernails are.

“Real feathers are expensive–who would sell a whole bag for such a cheap price?”

The poultry meat industry (i.e. turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese) produces a very large amount of feathers as a by-product. As a consequence, craft supply chains can manufacture and sell craft feathers at very low cost. These feathers may be of questionable quality, but they are certainly real and affordable. You can even find them at the dollar store! While certain bird feathers are rare, expensive, and highly coveted, poultry feathers are definitely not.

“No real feathers would be so brightly colored.”

Fortunately, dyes exist.

“They’re labeled artificial/synthetic/fake.”

These terms mean different things to different people. A seller with little knowledge of how their supplier procures feathers could justify marketing their craft feather product as “synthetic” based on any of the assumptions mentioned above. A seller could have more shady intentions, though. By labeling feathers with terms that cut their ties with the meat industry, they falsely advertise the feathers as a cruelty-free, vegan alternative. Obviously, that’s a terribly unethical marketing ploy, but it does help to increase their potential customer base.

Which Species?

A while back, I purchased a bag of mixed craft feathers from Michaels. I did not realize until recently that the feathers belonged to a few different species instead of just one, as I had originally thought. Thanks to this, I can showcase a number of different feather types that are commonly sold as craft feathers.

Domestic Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo domesticus)

The feather to the far left is a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) feather for reference; the other three are craft feathers. Domestic turkey body feathers, sometimes marketed as “turkey flats,” make up the majority of the cheap craft feathers you’ll see.

The most unique feature of turkey feathers is the squared-off tip. Any large, flat feather with a squared tip can be nothing else but turkey. Not all turkey feathers are squared, but generally, all squared feathers are turkey.

Domestic Goose (Anser anser domesticus)

There were three distinct types of domestic goose feathers in the bag: primary wing coverts, greater secondary wing coverts, and underwing coverts.

These are some primary wing coverts. They have a distinct, thick quill and a tapered shape. They are often marketed under the name “cosse.” Compare with the Greylag Goose (Anser anser) feather to the left.

These are the greater secondary wing coverts. While the domestic goose feathers may have more fluff than their wild counterpart, this is probably due to the younger age of the birds– poultry birds farmed for meat don’t usually live very long.

These are the underwing coverts. As compared to the previous two feather types, underwing coverts lack a strong central shaft and are soft and flexible as a result. This is probably why they are often marketed as “satinettes.” Again, the extra fluff can likely be attributed to young age.

Domestic Duck (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus)

I found only one feather that belonged to a domestic duck in the bag, which goes to show how hodgepodged certain craft feather assortments can be. Both of the photographed feathers are from Mallard-descended domestic ducks; the one on the right came from the bag. The wedge-shaped tip identifies this as an inner primary wing feather.

The other feature that identifies this as a duck feather is the tegmen. This is a waxy, shiny patch found on the undersides of all waterfowl primaries. If you see a tegmen, most times that feather will be from a duck or goose.

Plumage Anomalies

Craft feathers, as sourced from the poultry meat industry, aren’t always in the best of shape. Here are two common issues that frequently appear in craft feathers.

Fault/Stress Bars

Many craft feathers bear these distinct horizontal bars along their feathers. In wild birds, lines like these are usually caused by a period of stress or a dietary deficiency during feather growth and are known as fault bars. In poultry, they more often result from nasty little critters known as quill mites. While the feather is developing, these mites feed on the nutrient-rich blood feathers, causing a small bar on the feather to lose structural integrity and become brittle. Don’t worry; it’s more than likely that these feathers have been sanitized well enough that the mites are long gone.

Incomplete (Growing) Feathers

Feathers with a pinched section at the bottom were still growing when the bird died. Prior to being cleaned, there would have been a tube encapsulating the pinched portion that contained blood and nutrients for the growing feather. After the cleaning process, you’re left with these technically incomplete feathers.

In short, most craft feathers are a) real, and b) easily identifiable to the species level. Next time you’re in the market for craft feathers, I hope you keep these tips in mind.

Further Reading

Should you wish to learn about a larger variety of feathers used for decorative purposes, the Fish and Wildlife Service has put together a fantastic presentation (linked here) on the subject that encompasses a large range of gamefowl species.

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