Field Guides To Bird Feathers: A Next-Level Tool for Birdwatchers

Ever since Roger Tory Peterson came out with the first portable bird guide, birdwatching fanatics could track and catalog every species seen through a pair of binoculars.

But what if you just find a feather on the ground? Feathers show the bird’s colors, of course, but vary greatly from the tail to the wing, especially in birds with a complex blend of colors. Even for seasoned experts, naming the bird based on one feather is like naming a Van Gogh painting based on one piece from a jigsaw puzzle — not easy.

But thanks to the efforts of several emerging databases around the world, naming a bird from its feathers has become a lot easier.

Three databases for identifying feathers

The newest bird-feather database comes from India, a country with 1,400 bird species and no way of identifying them from feathers — until now.

In Nov. 2021, an Indian architect named Esha Munshi teamed up with Sherwin Everett, a vet and curator of an avian hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

green bee-eater

Feathers of India’s green bee-eater. Photo: Feather Library


Together, they launched the Feather Library website, the first online collection of bird feathers in India. It presents an array of details — and well-organized images — of the anatomy of a bird’s feathers. Visitors can also look up the bird’s weight, body length, beak width, wingspan, the number of feathers, plus where it was found.

The relatively new site joins a small but growing movement around the world to catalog bird feathers.

In Germany, bird lovers can use Featherbase, an independent library created and managed by scientists and collectors. (It also has a pretty sweet Instagram account.) In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages its own image database called The Feather Atlas. The U.S. database currently has feather scans of 438 species.

For birdwatchers, access to these databases can offer an entirely new way of tracking, cataloging, and understanding their favorite animals.


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Rescuing ‘valuable data’ before it’s too late

In India, the Feather Library is only possible because of Everett’s work at the Ahmedabad bird hospital.

The hospital sees and treats about 2,000 birds a month, many of which have sustained injuries in collisions with vehicles. Another source of winged patients comes from the country’s love of kite festivals. The kite strings can snare birds. Some recover, but many die from their injuries.

Instead of tossing away those dead birds, Munshi and Everett use the bodies to catalog their feathers. Although she’s an architect by trade, Munshi has “breathed birds” for as long as she can remember, she told The Guardian recently.

american flamingo

An image of American Flamingo feathers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Feather Atlas. Image: The Feather Atlas


She’s now seen 1,060 of the country’s 1,400 species and completed a two-year online course in avian biology from Cornell University. She and Everett eventually hope to raise enough funds for a charitable trust, or even a museum. In the meantime, they’ll continue cataloging bird feathers online.

“Most rescue centers throw away the dead birds or burn them, and a lot of valuable data is lost,” Munshi told The Guardian. “By collecting these feathers and documenting them digitally, we have a non-invasive way of getting valuable data. Our vision behind creating the feather library was to display the individual feathers of bird species and their markings, patterns, etc. so that in the eventuality of their extinction, there is a record for future generations.”

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.