Frontlines | Birds of a Feather, Banking Together
More than fluff makes a feather. Tucked away in its vane and shaft is a surprising amount of valuable data. Thanks to recent technology breakthroughs, researchers can glean a lot of information about a bird's diet, mating behavior, and migratory habits by merely examining its plumage. "With improved PCR-based genetics, stable isotope analysis, and trace element fingerprinting, feathers have become a great research tool," says Keith Hobson of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Saskatoon.
No scientifically managed feather collections exist, and that's why Hobson and other researchers are calling for the establishment of an international feather databank.1
Feathers should be easy to obtain. Ornithologists and other bird lovers band about 1.2 million songbirds each year in North America; plucking a few feathers from a bird in hand would be easy and painless, "sort of like getting your toenails clipped," says Hobson. In return, the birds would get better long-term protection, as researchers could determine the ecological niches they inhabit, the pollutants that are especially harmful, and the way stations they use between breeding and wintering grounds.
Despite all the banding, it's been surprisingly hard to track birds, which is another reason why the databank is necessary, Hobson says. With luck, only about one banded bird is recovered for every 20,000 banded. Feathers collected at different locations and sampled for DNA would allow scientists to trace more reliably the movements of winged populations.