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Feathers of a Bird

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, even the birds recycle. And what does a bird recycle? The only thing it really has—its feathers.

By Brittany Steff

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Feathers are no meager assets. They are truly tantalizing treasures, tangible links to the past. That’s because feathers are actually modified dinosaur scales. Birds themselves are living dinosaurs, the descendants of small, carnivorous reptiles. (Think very small versions of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors). More than 150 million years ago, fossils show, those small dinosaurs began sporting feathers. The feathers’ purpose is unknown. Perhaps they helped the animals make short, gliding flights. They may have provided insulation or attracted mates. Scientists aren’t sure.

What scientists are sure of is that feathers have attracted and intrigued humans for millennia. Modern birds use feathers to fly, of course, and also to keep warm. We humans haven’t yet figured out how to co-opt feathers for flight, though we’re more than eager to snuggle under a down comforter. Birds also use their feathers to attract mates, and they are very successful in doing so. Their brilliant hues have also attracted non-avian bipeds—humans—often to the birds’ own detriment.

In some cases, humans have literally loved birds to death for the sake of their feathers. Many of America’s birds, including herons and egrets, and much of the world’s most breathtaking avifauna (including the sublime birds of paradise) were hunted to near-extinction to adorn ladies’ hats at the turn of the last century. Because of this fashion, protecting birds often means protecting their feathers. If owning, transporting, or using feathers is illegal, the birds that grow the feathers are usually much safer.

Kiwi Cloaks

Some cultures, however, hold feathers as sacred and use them in religious and tribal ceremonies. Laws often contain special provisions providing for such uses. For instance, in the United States, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to own or collect eagle feathers, except for Native Americans with the proper permits.

The Maori people of New Zealand are in a similar situation. They weave ceremonial cloaks out of feathers, and the soft brown feathers of the kiwi are very highly prized. Kiwi feather cloaks are given names and passed down for generations. Some are several centuries old. The Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has two, donated in 1927 and 1962.

The tradition of cloak-making comes from a time, several centuries ago, when there were many more kiwis, and birds overall, in New Zealand. Originally, there were only a handful of mammalian species in New Zealand, all of them bats. With the arrival of invasive terrestrial carnivores, including cats, dogs, and ferrets, kiwi populations plummeted. The new predators flummoxed kiwis and the dozens of other flightless bird species on the islands. Birds were completely unequipped to protect themselves, their eggs, or their hatchlings from harm.

Kiwi chick.
(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

New Zealanders, who feel about kiwis the way Americans do about bald eagles, stepped in to save the iconic birds. Not surprisingly, kiwi conservation and breeding take place predominantly in New Zealand. However, thanks to one passionate and persistent keeper, kiwi conservation is spreading around the world. The National Zoo’s Kathy Brader oversees all kiwi breeding outside of New Zealand. The first such hatching took place at the Zoo in 1975. Since then, seven more kiwis—four males, three females—have hatched at the Zoo, and Brader’s been there for most of them.

Brader also started the Zoo’s “Meet a Kiwi” program, the only chance most people will ever get to interact with one of these nocturnal birds. It takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11 a.m. The star of the show is generally Manaia, a very laid-back male who hatched here in 2006.

The Zoo works closely with the New Zealand Embassy, which takes a proprietary interest in the kiwis. One day in 2011, a visitor from the embassy brought his family to visit Manaia and talk to Brader. As everyone was chatting after the kiwi meet-and-greet, Brader noticed one of the men walking around, picking kiwi feathers up off the carpet. Manaia was molting, so there were plenty to go around. Curious, Brader asked the man what he was doing.

It turns out that the gentleman—the father of an embassy staffer—is a retired policeman from New Zealand. In his spare time, he is learning to weave kiwi feather cloaks. The weaving of these cloaks is a dying art. New Zealand needs weavers both to create new cloaks and repair old ones. Weavers, in turn, need feathers to work with.

Flying Kiwis

Feathers are an endlessly renewable resource. Our kiwis, and in fact all our birds, busily produce them every day, turning bird food into keratin—the same substance that makes up your fingernails and hair. When feathers fall off, they get swept up and tossed out, along with used nesting material, uneaten food, and bird droppings. If someone wanted them, Brader was more than happy to oblige.

She worked with the New Zealand Embassy and the New Zealand Department of Conservation to get the proper export and import permissions to send regular shipments of kiwi feathers to New Zealand. The whole process is called, rather poetically, “feather repatriation.”

Fethers
(Meghan Murphy/NZP)

On October 1, 2011, the Zoo sent its first shipment of kiwi feathers to New Zealand. Flying directly to Auckland in their own reserved seat (and in notional possession of a boarding pass labeled “Feathers, Kiwi”), the feathers arrived in the middle of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Maori officials met them at the airport and took them through customs, where they were, of course, directed to the “New Zealand Residents” lane for processing. Afterward, they were blessed by the Maori and moved into storage before being carefully cleaned and woven into cloaks. As cloaks are woven or repaired, photos of those containing National Zoo feathers will be sent to Brader.

Kiwi cloaks are made to last, so feathers from Zoo kiwis will be part of cultural treasures cherished hundreds of years into the future. Brader explains, “This is a way of immortalizing our birds. It offers a means of involving them directly in conservation and cultural recovery efforts, and it takes very little work on everyone’s part. It’s a classic win-win situation.”

Kiwis aren’t the only birds donating their feathers to a higher cause. We send all our bald eagle feathers to the National Eagle Repository, where American Indians can apply for permits to receive them.

Costly Commodity

Some members of the human species use feathers to lure and beguile creatures of another order entirely—fish. For centuries, devoted fly fishermen have used feathers to create fishing flies, and they vastly prefer real feathers to synthetic ones. Prized almost beyond all other feathers are those from bustards, a family of large birds. Kori bustards, which you can see at the Bird House, are the heaviest birds that can fly.

According to Bird House biologist Sara Hallager, “Using bustard feathers in flies goes back several hundred years. I’ve been told that their feathers marry really well with other types of feathers.” Long ago, English fishermen used great bustard feathers for flies. But the great bustard went extinct in the United Kingdom in the 1840s. It still persists in remote pockets throughout Europe and Asia, but those populations are not nearly as convenient to Western fly fishermen.

Kori Bustard
(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Just because the great bustard supply dried up does not mean the demand for its feathers did. For a while, Hallager says, fly fishermen made do by buying and plucking museum specimens. As the supply of even these dead bustards dwindled, the price for bustard feathers skyrocketed, eventually reaching a reported $500 for a single kori bustard feather.

Great bustards and kori bustards are similar in size, and their feathers are alike. So kori bustard feathers were a natural replacement for great bustard feathers in flies. Although kori bustards are not considered endangered, scientists do believe their numbers are falling due to habitat loss and illegal hunting in eastern and southern Africa, where they live. Kori bustards also breed extremely slowly, creating further difficulty for populations.

Feathers for Fishermen

Hallager is in charge of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) for kori bustards. This means she coordinates all bustard breeding and advises zoos on research and conservation. So it was Hallager who got the call when a fly-tier (one who creates flies for fly-fishing) from Michigan decided that something needed to be done to help kori bustards.

Together, they decided to flood the market with free kori bustard feathers, which keepers could collect by the bagful, given that the birds molt twice a year.

As SSP coordinator, Hallager coordinates feather collection all around the country. Keepers at zoos that participate in the kori bustard SSP collect naturally molted feathers, bag them up, and send them to John McLain, the fly-tier from Michigan (who, coincidentally, is another retired police officer). McLain cleans the feathers, sorts them, and sends them free of charge to flytiers all around the United States. (Because of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, kori bustard feathers cannot be sent outside the United States.)

The National Zoo’s own kori bustards contribute to this program, furthering the Zoo’s conservation mission. Hallager, who is doing a long-term study on molting, has so far picked up more than 4,000 feathers. They are catalogued and then sent to McLain.

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

The fly-tiers who benefit from the program, now five years old, are encouraged to donate back to the kori bustard SSP. So far, the fly-tiers have donated funds for hormonal research on kori bustards, for video cameras for every zoo that houses the birds (the video will be used to create a visual husbandry manual), and for a satellite monitor for a scientist studying kori bustards in Botswana.

“Is it saving the koris in Africa?” Hallager asks. “Probably not. But it’s helping. And it really has made a difference.”

In a very concrete way, the birds themselves contribute to the conservation of other birds. After all, birds of a feather flock together. And so, it turns out, do feathers.

-- BRITTANY STEFF is a senior web editor and science writer for Friends of the National Zoo.