U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Forensics Laboratory


Main Page ABout browse scans search scans Identify feather glossary faq CONTACT


Identifying Unknown Feathers Using the SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER Tool

Identification of an unknown feather is a challenging process. Characteristics of the whole bird, as illustrated in field guides, are rarely helpful. Not only is the level of detail in field guides insufficient, but feathers from different parts of the bird often bear little resemblance to one another. For example, the outer wing feathers (primaries), inner wing feathers (secondaries), and tail feathers of a Mallard look completely different.

The Feather Atlas provides a search tool called “SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER ” to facilitate the identification of unknown feathers. This identification strategy allows the user to classify an unknown feather by two general attributes: pattern and color. Clicking on the “SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER ” tool then calls up thumbnail-sized images of feather scans that match the selected pattern and color criteria. Final identification can be made by detailed comparison of the unknown feather with similar feathers based on pattern, color, size, and shape.

Before You Get Started:   

Remember that the Feather Atlas, with just a few exceptions, illustrates only the large flight feathers of the wing and tail, not body feathers.  Therefore, the SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER tool won’t help you identify small body feathers.

Also, the Feather Atlas is a work in progress, and our coverage of North American birds is not complete.  A list of the groups of birds currently represented in the Feather Atlas can be found by clicking Browse Images. A complete list of species represented can be found by clicking List of All Species.

If you can’t find a match for your feather, it may be that the species is not yet represented.  Click Can’t Find a Match? for more discussion on the challenges of feather identification, and for a list of major groups of birds not yet illustrated in the Atlas.

STEP 1:  Choose SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER from the top menu bar.  This will open a page allowing you to choose from a set of general feather patterns and colors based on your feather’s appearance. 

STEP 2:  First, compare your unknown feather to the eight Pattern Exemplars.  Select the pattern or patterns that most closely match your feather.  Many feathers will match only a single pattern, but others, such as a barred feather with a broad white tip, will be best described by selecting more than one pattern. 

STEP 3:  Next, determine the most characteristic or striking color on your feather, and check the appropriate selection from the list.  By “characteristic” color, we mean the one that is most descriptive of the feather.  For example, when you look at a feather with areas of both blue and black, the blue color is most noticeable.  Thus, the “Blue/Purple” choice would be selected. Because feathers often contain complex mixtures of colors, it is not practical to code them all.  Simply choose the one color you believe best describes your feather.  If a search using your first choice of color description is unsuccessful, you can always try again with your second choice.  This will probably happen most with “Brown” and “Gray,” which thoroughly intergrade with each other.

White presents a special case.  If a feather is all white, you will of course choose “White.” Many feathers exhibit both black and white as striking elements, so we provide “Black&White” as a choice.  Otherwise, we rarely consider white to be the dominant color in a patterned feather.  For example, a feather with extensive areas of both brown and white should be classified as “Brown,” not “White.”

STEP 4 (Optional):  As a default, SEARCH FOR SIMILAR FEATHER shows all types of feathers matching your selected pattern(s) and color.  Advanced users who are familiar with feather shape may choose to further narrow their search by selecting Determining Feather Position.  This allows you to specify whether your feather is a wing feather or a tail feather.

STEP 5:  After you have chosen the pattern(s) and color that describe your feather, click “FIND SIMILAR FEATHERS.”  The search tool will then display thumbnail views of all the scans in the Feather Atlas that match the criteria you have chosen. Clicking on a thumbnail will open the full-sized scan, with measurements and other metadata.

STEP 6:  If you think you’ve found a match, don’t forget to compare the size of your feather with the feather in the Atlas.  There is some variation in the sizes of feathers within many species, but your feather should be “in the ballpark” for the bird you’re considering.  For example, the tail feathers of Rough-legged Hawks are less than 10 inches (24 cm) long; the quite similar feathers of subadult Golden Eagle are much larger:  typically greater than 12 inches (32 cm) long.
STEP 7:  If you found a feather that matches your unknown in size, shape, pattern, and color, congratulations!  Even if you didn’t find an exact match, you have probably narrowed down the possibilities and at least know the general group that your feather came from. And, we hope that you have a new appreciation for the complexity and beauty of feathers.


Remember, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the possession of feathers of native North American birds — even those found in back yards or on the beach.  As described on the Feather Atlas home page, you need to have a special scientific "salvage" permit to possess the feathers of wild birds.  So, continue to enjoy, appreciate, and photograph feathers — but don't keep them.


U.S. Department of Interior Logo