Identifying bird feathers is a great skill for any naturalist to learn. 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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The different types of feather

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 primary feathers 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.

David Lindo listening for birdsong.

How to identify bird feathers

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 any feathers that you find, 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.


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.

Magpie In Flight
Eurasian Magpie with wings fully spread. © Ger Bosma/Getty

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.

A Woodpigeon
A woodpigeon by the coats. © Sandra Standbridge/Getty

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.

A goldfinch in flight
A goldfinch in flight. © Mike Turtle/Getty

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


Wild boar droppings on grass.

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. It's particularly easy to ID when seen with other pheasant feathers on roadkill.

A male pheasant
A male pheasant. © Cavan Images/Getty

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.

Woodpeckers fighting
Great spotted woodpeckers sparring for the food. © Lillian King/Getty

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.

Green Woodpecker [Picus viridis]
A female Green Woodpecker in England. © Gary Chalker/Getty

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.

A jay flies over a field.
A jay flies over a field. © Reto Fuerst/EyeEm/Getty

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.

Two mallards standing on a stone
Two mallards standing on a stone. © Herbert Kehrer/Getty

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. They're similar to pheasant feathers, but the bars are incomplete.

Woodcock feeding in field
Woodcock feeding in a field. © birdsonline/Getty

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.

Red legged partridge
Red-legged partridge. © Mark Hughes/Getty

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.

Tawny owl hunting and flying from coniferous tree
A tawny owl takes flight. © sduben/Getty

Buzzard feather (Buteo buteo)

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.

Common buzzard
The distinctive common buzzard in the sky. © MikeLane45/Getty

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Main image: A jay's feather. © AlesVeluscek/Getty

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