Feather Finds, Feather Identification Tips

Robin feathers from Shenandoah

I recently had the opportunity to take a hike through the Shenandoah National Park of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Even in near-winter, the park looks absolutely stunning, with rushing mountain waterfalls and purple mountain majesty stretching into the horizon.

The dense deciduous forest habitat seems to be a favorite of American Robins. Over the course of my hike I came across three of their feathers.

The first feather had a distinctive silvery-white leading edge and a faint trace of orange at the base. The rounded tip and broad, almost evenly-split surface are traits consistent with secondary wing feathers. Its intermediate size (about 6cm) and grayish-brown overall color are characteristic of American Robin secondaries, particularly the trailing secondaries that lie closest to the body of the bird. Moreover, the white leading edge suggests that it came from a hatch-year robin, distinctive for their spottiness.

iNaturalist observation // Reference specimen: PSM Bird-22600

The second feather was a little worse for wear, but retained enough of its shape to be identifiable as an American Robin tail feather. The long, straight shaft is a tell-tale characteristic of songbird tail feathers, while its length (about 10cm), dark color, and white tip all point to robin.

iNaturalist observation // Reference specimen: Feather Atlas BRD 2887

The third feather, like the first, had the traits of an American Robin secondary wing feather. Its curvature and asymmetry are a bit more pronounced, suggesting that it’s one of the outer secondaries that lie farther from the body of the bird and has to be stronger and more streamlined as a result. The leading edge is faintly silvery and the trailing edge has an orange tint, but the overall dark coloration and lack of spottiness suggest that this came from an adult bird.

I remembered to take photos of both the front and back of the feather this time (always a good habit), but I didn’t remember to cover that fabulous glitter nail polish…

iNaturalist observation // Reference specimen: Feather Atlas BRD 2887

After snapping photos of each feather, using my hand as an impromptu size reference, I left them where I found them, waiting to decompose, be discovered by the next hiker, or simply float away.

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