Ever since I was a small boy I have been fascinated by the treasures I would find outdoors. These treasures might come in the form of a spider, caterpillar, toad, frog, snake, crawfish or turtle. There was nothing I would rather do than play with one of nature's toys. I learned how they lived, where to find them and how to catch them. Countless hours were spent walking slowly through a grassy field in search of snakes, voles, spiders and other insects. My eyes could detect any movement and nothing would escape my sharp eye.
Another favorite thing to do was wading in a small shallow stream looking for minnows, frogs or turtles. Water beetles and water stridders always got close inspection. A crawfish, snail or leech could be found by slowly turning over rocks on the bottom. The aquatic insects like stone fly larva, fairy shrimp and hellgrammites were also special finds for me. Often my bedroom had a fish bowl or two, with something living in it. This way the stream was always a part of my everyday life.
Yes, exploring was a big part of my life and is to this day. I can't ever go anywhere outside without keeping my eyes peeled for any new natural treasure. The things I would find weren't always alive either. My pockets, at the end of the day, would hold several pretty stones, a bird's bone, a blue jay feather or who knows what.
Feathers were always picked up and studied closely. This was a big help with my early bird studies. Even if I knew what kind of bird that it came from, studying the feather a little more closely could give me a clue where the feather was located on the bird. A feather with a little skin or flesh attached to it may mean that it was removed after the bird was dead. If the feather shaft was bent or dented, it could mean it was damaged by a predator while pulling it from the bird. If I found more than one feather in the same place, I was always suspicious and a pile of feathers was a sure sign that there was a bird in peril.
A single clean feather found alone on the ground was probably one which had been molted. Through the summer months, most all the wild birds will molt their feathers. One at a time, over a span of several weeks, birds will drop their old feathers and grow new ones. This will insure that a bird will have clean, strong feathers to help them fly for the next year.
Some songbirds, such as warblers and finches may molt their feathers to change color. This is called a pre- nuptial molt and the males wear their brightest colors after this molt. After the nesting season these birds will drop their pretty feathers and grow less colorful and less conspicuous ones.
Small roundish, fluffy feathers may have been attached to a bird's breast or flanks. Longer feathers may have been on a bird's back or covering the back of a wing or tail. Tiny round fathers could cover the bird's neck or head.
The most obvious feathers are the ones most often found. These are usually the bird's flight feathers. They are the feathers that help the bird to fly. They are the long secondary and primary wing feathers and the long, strong tail feathers. As a rule, the longer these feathers are, the larger the bird that dropped it. Primary and tail feathers have subtle differences from each other depending on weather they are located on the inside or outside of the wing or tail. Wing feathers for example, may be more pointed towards the outside of the wing and become more rounded at the ends as they get closer to the body.
The two centered tail feathers show the shaft running directly down the center of the feather. As the tail feathers move to the outsides the shaft runs more and more off center.
The beautiful tail feather of the red-tailed hawk was a great find and told me much about the hawk. Its large size and rich red color told me it was molted by an adult female hawk. It was the third or fourth feather on the left side of the hawk's tail. It told me that it was from a healthy well-fed bird without any signs of damage or fault bars. Fault bars are light scars on a feather that appear when the feather is growing. If a bird is stressed because of lack of food while the feather is growing, the feather, if stressed, may break here.
It's fun to find a feather and lots can be learned by giving it a closer look. The next time you take a walk down nature's trail, be more serious about exploring. You never know what treasure you will find. A good place to look for molted feathers is under the bird's favorite perches. A good place to start looking may be under the bird feeders or under a dead tree or fence post.
All art ©2013 Organic Valley