At the tail end of this past winter, I noticed a feather floating in the water just off the boardwalk. It was black with white triangular notches on the inner vane. The feather looked to be about 4 inches long, maybe a bit smaller. By its shape, I could tell that it was either an inner primary or secondary feather (wing feather) of a medium sized bird. This feather both puzzled and troubled me.
The feather puzzled me because I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what bird it had come from. It troubled me for the same reason. There was a time when I was fairly confident in identifying, as to species, just about any feather I found. Even those, often small, contour feathers, the ones that cover the body of a bird. The feather now floating in the water a dozen feet or so from the edge of the boardwalk was a wing feather. How could I NOT know what bird had dropped this rather distinctive feather into our little wetland?
Whatever bird it was that had dropped the feather, had lost the feather, perhaps in a struggle of some sort. This is not the time of year that wing feathers molt. I flirted with the idea that it had belonged to one of the hooded mergansers that were still swimming around our wetland. They were due to leave for the season in a week or two. They have white in their wings. But, the white is not notched or spotted as on the feather I was contemplating. The merganser’s feathers are more two-toned, white along the rachis (center shaft) of the feather or white on the outer margins only.
Field guides are little help for this kind of identification. I moved online to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory web page (next 4 photos below are from that site). This amazing website has scans of the flight feathers of many of the birds of North America. If you don’t handle wild birds on a regular basis (very few people do – banders are the exception) this is a great place to satisfy any curiosity you may have about what bird feathers look like up close and where they’re located on a bird. You may also be able to solve the mystery of a found feather.
Most woodpeckers have spotted wings, black and white spotted wings. But this feather was too big to be from the local woodpeckers, like downy, hairy, or red-bellied woodpecker or a sapsucker. Besides, the spots on their wings are more circular than triangular in shape. And, although I see pileated woodpeckers (very large woodpeckers) here at the museum often enough, they do not have spots of any shape on their wings. Their is much white on the proximal portion of a pileated’s primaries but those feathers are not spotted.
How about a kestrel? American kestrels are small falcons. They have lots of white markings on their flight feathers. Could this be a male kestrel’s feather? Male kestrels, specifically, are known for the white markings on their wings. It’s one of their key identifying characteristics.
Back to the USFWS website.
Now we’re getting somewhere!
BUT, If this was a kestrel feather, it would be a remarkable occurrence for the museum. I’ve only seen perhaps 2 kestrels here at the museum in the almost nine years I’ve been here, and they were just passing through, rapidly passing through. There’s nothing here on the museum’s campus to keep a kestrel lingering for very long. It is possible, however, that one flew over, dropped in to chase some airborne prey over the wetlands and lost a flight feather in the process.
However, this was not a time when kestrels would be migrating through the area. And, since this was early March, there were no dragonflies flying about the wetlands (kestrels will, and do, eat dragonflies). There was not much prey available for a kestrel at this time.
Besides all of the above, and although the size seems about right (9 cm is about 3 1/2 inches) there’s something else that didn’t quite match. All of the primaries in the two illustrations above are too pointed at the tip and the secondaries, though more blunt at the tips, are all light-tipped. Neither of those characteristics jives with my feather. My feather has a dark, blunt tip. And, notice the gray margin on the leading edge of the feather in the water (left side in photo of close-up above and below).
What other bird is about the size of a kestrel and likely to be seen in our wetlands? How about kingfisher, belted kingfisher. I’ve only seen a belted kingfisher up close, in-the-hand-close, a few times. They’re not caught in banders’ nets very often. Few people get very close to these birds.
I did a search for belted kingfisher flight feathers and Bingo! there it was: notched triangular markings on the inner vane of the feather, gray margin on the outer vane, and blunt tip. This feather had come from the wing of a belted kingfisher.
Is this a kingfisher’s feather? Yes!
There’s a large white patch on a kingfisher’s primaries which is obvious when the bird is in flight. The white patch is caused by the outer primaries (left side of photo above). The feather in the water came from a position further in on the wing from the white patch. It most closely matches the third or fourth feather in from the right.
Mystery solved! This was surely a flight feather from a belted kingfisher, a frequent visitor to the Museum’s wetlands.