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....