A Dropped Feather

Top Photo: What bird’s feather?

I found the feather (above) on the path, not far from the Dinosaur Trail. I knew it was a primary feather, one of the last primaries, furthest out on the wing. The outer primaries tend to be long and narrow in comparison to the inner primaries and secondaries. This feather was about 87 mm long. A primary feather that long would probably belong to a bird about the same size of a robin, or a tad smaller.

What birds have a flash of white at the base of the primaries? My first thought was some kind of woodpecker or perhaps mockingbird. Lots of woodpeckers have white on their wings, but most of the white is in the form of nice, neat spots, not a flash or splotch of white as was on this feather.

I could eliminate all of the western species of woodpecker. Although, as the old saying goes, “Birds have wings, you never know where they’ll show up.” Even so, I hadn’t even considered it being a western species’ feather.

What woodpeckers were in the area? I had just seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker, they’re migrating through. Hairy and downy are year round residents. Red-bellied woodpeckers are heard, if not seen, every day.

I was left with sapsucker, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers. All but the red-bellied have white spots on their primaries, not a splotch of white near the base of the feather with the remainder all dark.

Red-bellied woodpecker “flash of white.”

Mockingbirds, too, show white at the base of the primaries. Their primaries are the right size and shape. But, the white on each feather is continuous, no dark spots like my feather had.

Mockingbird “flash of white.” (juvenile bird).

It was time to take a look at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory’s The Feather Atlas. They represent 438 North American species of bird. The feathers are placed and photographed on a grid indicating size with both wing and tail feathers placed sequentially as they would appear on the live bird (primaries 1 through 10 etc).

As mentioned, mockingbird was eliminated immediately, solid white proximally, solid dark distally.

Red-bellied woodpecker looked the part!

Just out of curiosity, and while I was on The Feather Atlas site, I checked out the samples of two of the red-bellied woodpecker’s closest relatives in the west, gila woodpecker and golden-fronted woodpecker (they’re in the same genus, Melanerpes). They all had similar markings on their primaries, though the Golden-fronted woodpecker’s 9th primary looked more like my feather than did a red-bellied woodpecker’s primary.

All four candidates (feather scans on right side of image are scaled down from photos on The Feather Atlas web site).

I’m not suggesting that a golden-fronted woodpecker, a bird pretty much restricted to central Texas, Mexico and parts of Central America, flew through our woods and across our path dropping a primary feather in the process, but, “Birds have wings…” stranger things have happened.

No, a more likely explanation for this feather to look more golden-fronted than red-bellied woodpecker is a case of individual variation in plumage. Not every individual bird that makes up a species is exactly the same. They’re not identical. There’s variation among them all.

And besides, my feather may have been dropped by a juvenile bird, hatched this summer. None of the Feather Atlas photos available for these species are juvenile feathers. Juvenile feathers are usually more cryptic, often different colored and at the very least, less bright and neat than adult feathers.

With all of that out of the way, I think this feather is the 9th primary, from the right wing, of an adult red-bellied woodpecker.

Adult red-bellied woodpecker.

Any questions or comments are welcomed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.