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Feather identification

March 15, 2012

While walking in the forest recently, a friend of mine came upon a small pool of feathers on a fallen log and found herself wondering what bird had become sustenance for another creature. Utilizing a wonderful website and database established by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) through its Forensics Laboratory, we were able to determine that the mottled black and white feathers had most likely belonged to a downy woodpecker.

The website ( assists in feather identification by providing high-resolution scans of the flight feathers of major groups of North American birds. The database can be searched by the common or scientific name of a bird species or group and identification is made by comparing an unknown feather with the scans of similar feathers.

The Feather Atlas is an important tool for the FWS Forensics Laboratory, since all species of native North American migratory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty (MBTA). Some species are also protected by additional statutes such as the Endangered Species Act (see

According to the FWS, the possession of feathers and other parts from MBTA-protected birds without permission is prohibited. (Exceptions are the feathers of legally hunted waterfowl or other migratory game birds that may be possessed by hunters).

The prohibition extends to molted feathers and to feathers taken from road- or window-killed birds. Those wishing to use bird feathers, bones, or whole specimens for educational or research purposes must apply for permits from the FWS and their state wildlife or natural resource agency.

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