Identifying the species of bird that a feather belongs to can be a challenging task. Feathers come in a wide variety of colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. While general color and size can provide clues, these features alone are usually not enough to conclusively identify the source species. Careful examination of additional feather characteristics and consulting references are often required.
When presented with a black feather, the detective work becomes even more difficult. Many bird species have black plumage, at least in some part of their body. The question “what bird is this black feather from?” has no simple or quick answer. However, with some deductive reasoning and reference to key feather identification resources, the likely source species can usually be narrowed down significantly.
In this article, we’ll walk through an systematic approach to identifying the species of bird most likely to have produced a black feather. We’ll look at steps for careful visual examination, consideration of feather type, size and texture, and consultation of specialized feather guides and databases. We’ll also present a table summarizing the most common birds with black plumage that may be sources of black feathers. While not every black feather can be conclusively traced to a species, this comprehensive approach will provide the best chance at an accurate identification.
Examining the Feather
When attempting to identify the source of an unknown feather, the first step is always a thorough visual and tactile examination of the feather itself. Carefully note the following characteristics:
Color/Pattern – Note the overall color and any variations, bands or mottling. Be aware though that many birds can have multiple feather colors.
Shape – Feather shape can indicate the part of the bird’s body it came from. Plumes and downy feathers have loose branching structures while flight feathers have stiffer, Aerodynamic shapes.
Texture – Downy feathers designed for insulation feel soft and fluffy. Stiffer flight feathers feel smooth and firm.
Size – Measure length, width, thickness and overall size. This provides clues to the bird’s size.
Condition – Examine for any wear, damage or abnormalities. Pristine feathers likely come from a living bird. Worn, damaged feathers may be molted or from a deceased bird.
For a black feather, color and size will be the most telling basic characteristics. The size can provide a good first estimate of the type of bird based on its scale. Condition may indicate whether the feather was naturally molted or pulled from a specimen. Other characteristics provide supporting clues.
Identifying Feather Type
Birds have different types of feathers that serve unique purposes. The type of feather can provide valuable clues to the source bird. Here are the main feather types:
Down Feathers – Very small, soft and fluffy. Used to insulate a bird’s body. Found on all birds at some stage.
Body Feathers – Also for insulation and covering the body surface. Smaller and softer than flight feathers.
Flight Feathers – Stiff and rigid to provide lift and thrust for flying. Found on wings and tail.
Semiplume Feathers – An intermediate between down and contour feathers.
Filoplume Feathers – Hair-like feathers with a few barbs near the base.
Bristle Feathers – Stiff and hair-like without barbs. Found around eyes and mouths.
For narrowing down a back feather source, flight and body feathers provide more useful clues than down or other types. Pay close attention to details such as symmetry, curvature and barb structure. The precise part of the wing or body the feather came from can further aid identification.
Consulting Feather Atlases and Guides
Once you have closely examined a feather and identified its probable type, reference materials specifically designed for feather identification can be enormously helpful. Both paper and online feather atlases exist that catalog feathers from a wide range of species. Here are some of the most useful:
- National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Bird’s Feathers – One of the seminal paper guides with full color images.
- Flight Identification of Raptors of North America – Focused guide for identifying feathers of hawks, eagles and other raptors.
- FeatherAtlas.com – Online visual feather database with images searchable by species.
- fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/ – The US FWS feather atlas with high resolution feather photos.
These resources allow you to visually match an unknown feather against thousands of example images. Given a black feather, you can filter just black colored images and potentially find a very close match. If the species can’t be determined definitively, these guides at least narrow down probable options.
Databases of Bird Feather Characteristics
In addition to visual feather atlases, reference databases providing detailed specifications of feathers for various species can assist identification. These capture key measurements, colors and anatomical features that can be matched against an unknown sample. Examples include:
- Featherbase.info – Allows searching over 10,000 feathers by over 100 identification criteria.
- EBIRD – Species profiles include data on feathers colors and patterns.
- Xeno-canto – Database of bird calls also has some feather data for species.
These resources are extremely useful for confirming suspected IDs based on visual examinations. They also allow targeted searches filtering just black colored feathers of certain sizes or types. This helps generate a shortlist of likely candidate species for a given black feather.
Considering the Feather’s Provenance
The location the feather was found in can provide additional clues to the identity of the source bird. Considering the geographic setting such as:
- Continent / Country / Region
- Rural woodland vs Urban setting
- Near a wetland, coastal area or mountainous area
- Near a wildlife rehabilitation center or aviary
This environmental context will help narrow the list of candidate species. For instance, a black feather found next to an eagle rehabilitation center is more likely to come from a Bald or Golden Eagle than a wild waterfowl species. The feasible options differ greatly between wetland, mountain, forest or desert habitats.
The Most Likely Source Birds
While many avian species have black plumage, feathers and flight feathers in particular, only certain types are most probable to produce all black feathers. Here is a table summarizing those most likely to be the source of an unknown black feather:
|American Crow||Passerine||North America||All black plumage produces all black feathers|
|Common Raven||Passerine||North America||All black plumage|
|Red-winged Blackbird||Passerine||North America||Black body feathers|
|European Starling||Passerine||Europe, North America||All black plumage|
|Black Vulture||Cathartid||North America||Black flight feathers|
|Anhinga||Anhingidae||Americas||Long black flight feathers|
|Great Cormorant||Phalacrocoracidae||Europe, Asia, Africa||Black flight feathers|
|Raven sp.||Corvidae||Worldwide||Ravens have all black plumage|
|Crow sp.||Corvidae||Worldwide||Crows have all black plumage|
|Blackbird sp.||Icteridae||Americas||Have black colored body feathers|
This covers some of the most likely species in various parts of the world that routinely molt or produce all black feathers. Examining the feather’s structure, texture and size can help narrow the possibilities further to determine the closest match.
Identifying the species of bird from a single feather can be tricky but is possible in many cases with some detective work. For an all black feather, close examination of size, texture and precise shape provide initial clues. Consulting visual feather atlases as well as searchable databases can generate candidate matches. Considering the geographic source of the feather provides additional context to narrow the possibilities. While not infallible, this systematic approach can get you close to determining the bird species a black feather likely originated from.