Ask the Nature Lady by Marlene A. Condon

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“Bird Feathers, A Book for Those Who Love Birds”

A guide book that I had always felt needed to be written was one to help folks to identify feathers.  Probably everyone finds a feather occasionally, but until recently, there hasn’t been a good way to figure out for sure which kind of bird a feather came from.  Now there is!

Bird Feathers was published by Stackpole Books, a Pennsylvania company that has brought to market many a nature book (including mine).  Written by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland, this paperback is dense with information and photographs, weighing in at over 1½ pounds!

For anyone who loves watching and identifying birds and learning about them, this book is a must-have.  Some feathers can be identified without a book, such as the gorgeous blue-and-white feathers of a Blue Jay.  But other feathers, such as those from hawks that you rarely get to study up close, require research.

Why bother identifying a feather?  One reason is to know what kind of bird flew over your yard or perhaps landed there.  In this way you learn which species are sharing your world, even if you don’t get to actually see them.

If you’ve put up wildlife boxes for birds and other critters that use natural tree cavities, you may find feathers when you clean the boxes out in late winter every year.  These clues can tell you what animals made use of the boxes and for what purpose.

For example, Eastern Screech Owls have used boxes in my yard for nesting in late winter or early spring as well as for roosting and eating.

By being able to identify the feathers and other animal remains that I’ve cleaned out of the boxes, I’ve learned what these little owls consume.  In addition to frogs, crayfish, and mice, their menu has included birds, such as Cedar Waxwing, Northern Cardinal, and even Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Bird Feathers is so chock full of information that even the inside covers are employed to deliver it.  On the inside front cover, you find wonderful diagrams that clearly delineate the various names and locations of feathers on a bird, under the heading of “Basic Bird Topography”.

The inside back cover of Bird Feathers depicts the “Topography of a Bird Wing” and both inside covers supply a ruler so you can conveniently measure the feathers you find.

The book consists of two parts.  The first 66 pages cover such topics as the history of a feather, how feathers became tools for flight, bird anatomy, feather types and wing shapes, and the explanation for why blue birds, such as the male Indigo Bunting, look black when the sun is not shining on them (their blue color is not the result of pigments, as other feather colors are).

Pages 69-340 contain photos of bird feathers, covering 397 bird species!  Feather measurements are provided, along with the variation in them.  Range maps illustrate which birds are in what areas of the country and during which seasons so that you can narrow down the choices appropriately.

Be sure to read pages 64-66 which explain how to use the book.  Then you’ll be on your way to learning even more about your avian guests.  After all, you may not be home when a particular bird visits, but if it drops off a feather, you’ll have its calling card!

Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com).  If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, send it to [email protected] and please watch for an answer in this paper.