Hi, I'm a homeschooling mom who recently moved to North Carolina. My 5th grade son and 3rd grade daughter are enamored with all the birds right in our own back yard. They recently found a black and yellow feather and decided that they wanted to figure out what bird had dropped it. I had them observe the feather and draw and write out all they could by looking at the feather. Then we went to the internet and tried to search ways to use what we observed to classify the bird.
I naively thought this would be easy! ;) Could you recommend a book we might check out, or a web site, or even some tips on how to go from "feather to species?" I know I may be over simplifying, but I am at a loss for how to follow through on this project with the kids.
First, thanks for the question, I'm ecstatic to hear your kids have caught the bird watching bug! This is the part of my day job I enjoy the most: talking birds and inspiring everyone to move to their next level in nature appreciation through birds. Couple that with being inspired by parents who come up with creative ways to educate from simple backyard experiences - priceless! I'm going to use this idea with my own daughter.
Burying a reply that might have widespread interest in the comments would be a crime, not because everyone should read my $.02, but because of the knowledge others could contribute. This is a perfect topic for a full-blown post. Below I'll list a few of my favorite web resources, then count on you, Gentle Readers, to add to the list. I'll compile the full list in a future post.
But first, what is the black-and-yellow feather found in North Carolina? Feather identification is not easy - the experts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History can attest to that. First, you'd figure out what type of feather it is, one from the wing? If so, which specific feather? Each one is numbered and often unique in shape and/or color pattern. The tail? Again, which feather? Perhaps it's a contour feather? Next, you'd determine what birds are possible based on distribution. What black-and-yellow birds occur in your local area, and which of those show the colors of interest and the patterns of those colors? It would certainly help to know how those patterns on the bird were created, meaning what the individual feathers look like, and how they appear on the bird - at rest, in flight. A knowledge of bird topography would be necessary . . . clearly, this is not a simple process!
Years of observation, study, and experience help, of course, as does a large reference library of books and actual specimens. Here's my knee-jerk reaction: it could be a flight feather from a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), the Yellow-shafted race. Common in wooded areas across the eastern states, including backyards, their flight feathers (wings and tails) show a wash of yellow with black in feathers. Rather than try to describe them, I'll refer you to the images on these pages:
If you're reading, commenter from North Carolina, please let us know if any feathers appear similar, and feel free to send any images you take. Naturally, thoughts from others are welcome (especially North Carolina birders that have museum experience).
Now, a perfunctory list of useful resources on the web. These sites should start helping learning all about birds and help with the next feather, or nest, or unknown bird you find. Of course, this list probably already exists elsewhere in the Wide World of Webs, so please post a link if you've got one!
The Feather Atlas - a site displaying flight feathers from North American birds. The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory presents high-resolution photos of wing feathers (primaries and secondaries) and tail feathers (retrices) to help identify feathers you may find.
All About Birds - Developed and manged by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this site aims to provide a sold, general background in all things birds, from the birds themselves to the gear used to appreciate them. There are loads of pages about each species in North America providing details about each species - not so much to overwhelm the casually interested reader, but enough to give a robust understanding. Expect a brand new look and feel in Spring 2009 (early April, I'm told).
http://allaboutbirds.org which forwards you to the official web address, but this is easier to remember.
Internet Field Guide to Birds - From the BioDiversity Institute, this site aims to assist users in identifying birds they see. The user chooses characteristics they observed about the bird in question (size, shape, colors, state/province where the bird was located, etc) and the program displays images of birds that fit that description. You can fill in as much detail or as little as you noted, and you choose from drop-down menus - you don't need to come up with terminology on your own. Once a list is returned you can discard obvious "wrongs" and directly compare the rest. In a couple of scenarios I've run it does a reasonable job, especially if you have no idea where to start.
KidWings - Geared towards school-age kids (upper elementary and junior high, maybe?) with lots of activities to teach about birds. The virtual Owl Pellet Dissection is very cool - be sure to check it out (and learn some rodent anatomy while your at it). Also an interactive way to teach about feathers, bird topography, and more - all helpful in feather identification.
Birding On The 'Net - Geared towards anyone with an interest in birds, from the hardcore to the new bird watcher. Jack Siler's site is a warehouse of listserve discussions from across the globe, but organized for fairly easy navigation. Anyone can check in periodically without subscribing to the list - go to the BirdMail section, look up the listserve that includes your location, and read through the subject headings. They're very useful to see what birds are being commonly seen, or what uncommon birds show up, and often there are other discussions about local nature. Most on the lists are very welcoming to new bird watchers, you can post questions and count on local experts and/or aficionados to chime in with answers.
eBird - Geared towards anyone who wants to learn about distribution and abundance while tracking the birds they see. When you contribute your observations they reside in a single database used by ornithologists, educators, naturalists, other birders . . . anyone with an interest in where the birds are and how their numbers are changing over time. Developed by the CLO and Audubon, this project is near and dear to my heart, I find it most useful (and fun) to track what birds I've recorded in our yard and using the "View and Explore Data" functionality to see when/where different species are occurring.
Hopefully that'll get a list going - please contribute your thoughts in the comments.