How to identify common feathers

Found a feather? Use this handy guide by naturalist and presenter Brett Westwood to identify which bird it belongs to.

Eurasian jay wing pattern. © Darrell Gulin/Getty

There’s a bit of a Maigret or Miss Marple inside any naturalist – we all relish a spot of detection. Winter is a good time to test your forensic skills with a quest for quills, so here we’ve selected a range of colourful feathers that can help you pinpoint the species of bird to which they once belonged.

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There are several types of feathers. Downy ones keep the bird warm and are often less obvious, but most of the visible plumage is made up of contour feathers which often overlap. Many of those we’ve shown here are from the wing and most are primary or secondary feathers.

The primaries are the long, often stiff feathers attached to the ‘hand’. The shorter secondary feathers are attached to the bird’s ‘forearm’. On the shoulders are the scapular feathers and the locations of the breast, flank and tail feathers speak for themselves.

This guide will help you identify single feathers, but the remains of a bird of prey or mammal kill will often give you a further set of clues with several types of feather. Sparrowhawk plucking-posts are often good hunting grounds, and are targeted by other feather-hunters than ourselves: long-tailed tits use up to 2,000 feathers in their spherical nests.

To preserve feathers lay them on a 0.5cm-thick base of washing powder. Cover with another layer of the same thickness and leave to dry for a month.


Pheasant feather (Phasianus colchicus)

Pheasant feather. © Mike Langman
Pheasant feather. © Mike Langman

A pheasant’s breast feather is orange with a black tip and brown base. Easy to ID when seen with other pheasant feathers on roadkill.

Goldfinch feather (Carduelis carduelis)

Goldfinch feather. © Mike Langman
Goldfinch feather. © Mike Langman

Goldfinch feathers show part of the yellow wing-bar on the secondary feathers, a white base and a white tip forming the wing’s white trailing edge.

The scientific name of the goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.

Great spotted woodpecker feather (Dendrocopos major)

Great spotted woodpecker feather. © Mike Langman
Great spotted woodpecker feather. © Mike Langman

Great spotted woodpecker feathers (both primaries and secondaries) are black with large white spots to the edges.

Green woodpecker feather (Picus viridis)

Green woodpecker feather. © Mike Langman
Green woodpecker feather. © Mike Langman

Green woodpecker secondary feathers have a ladder pattern with moss green bars on one side of the shaft and white bars on the other.

Jay feather (Garrulus glandarius)

Jay feather. © Mike Langman
Jay feather. © Mike Langman

Jay feathers feature unique sky-blue barring on one side of the shaft of secondaries and on the primary coverts.

Mallard feather (Anas platyrhynchos)

Mallard feather. © Mike Langman
Mallard feather. © Mike Langman

The male mallard’s feathers from the speculum (the bright patch in the wings of most dabbling ducks) are partly purple or blue-green.

Woodcock feather (Scolopax rusticola)

Woodcock feather. © Mike Langman
Woodcock feather. © Mike Langman

Secondary woodcock feathers are strongly barred with a rufous ‘shark’s tooth’ pattern. Similar to pheasant feathers, but bars are incomplete.

Red-legged partridge feather (Alectoris rufa)

Red-legged partridge feather. © Mike Langman
Red-legged partridge feather. © Mike Langman

Red-legged partridge feathers from the flank have a ginger tip above a white-bordered black band; it forms the ‘tiger stripes’ on the living bird.

Magpie feather (Pica pica)

Magpie feather. © Mike Langman
Magpie feather. © Mike Langman

The classic magpie feather is long and narrow, with blue or green iridescence to the dark areas and variable amounts of white. These are the primaries.

The scientific name of the magpie, Pica pica, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.

Woodpigeon feather (Columba palumbus)

Woodpigeon feather. © Mike Langman
Woodpigeon feather. © Mike Langman

Woodpigeon tail feathers are long and rectangular with a broad, rounded end. Tip black, centre pale grey and base dark grey.

Tawny owl feather (Strix aluco)

Tawny owl feather. © Mike Langman
Tawny owl feather. © Mike Langman

Primary tawny owl feathers are reddish-brown or brown with dark bands; as in all owls, edges are softly fringed for silent flight.

Buzzard feather (Buteo buteo)

Buzzard feather. © Mike Langman
Buzzard feather. © Mike Langman

A buzzard’s primary feathers are dark-ended with dark barring; the feather base is largely pale with a grey-brown wash on the upper half.

The scientific name of the buzzard, Buteo buteo, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.


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Main image: Eurasian jay wing pattern. © Darrell Gulin/Getty