Light As A Feather

We paid special attention to random debris around our house this week, because roofers replaced our old shingles with a new roof.   Among the shreds of tarpaper and shards of shingles, as well as the odd roofing nail, Jane found a small feather, which she judged to be about the color of a female Cardinal.  I thought it was browner than that, but on the warm side of the brown spectrum for sure.

The internet, font of all wisdom, includes a remarkable site run by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  It’s called The Feather Atlas, and it contains images and descriptions of the flight feathers of a host of American birds.  It is searchable by the name of the bird, by browsing, or by the characteristics of the specimen feather: pattern, color, size, position, and type of bird.  After playing around with this remarkably powerful and flexible resource for a while, I have concluded that the feather I have is almost certainly a primary flight feather of an English sparrow, or house sparrow.  One supporting point for my conclusion is that the house sparrow is very common in our environs.

English/house sparrows are, of course, invasive species.  A little more digging provided the information that in the 19th century many people thought that the importation of non-native species was a harmless, and in fact even useful activity.  The culprit who brought the English sparrow here was one Eugene Schieffelin, who in 1852 imported some of them to eat the linden moth larvae around his Madison Square, New York City home.  This same nonchalant importer was a “bardolater” (inordinate lover of Shakespeare) who brought the starling to this country also.  Apparently he never did release some of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings, though that was asserted as fact.  But he did form the American Acclimatization Society in 1871, with the purpose of “improving” the New World by bringing “useful or interesting” animal and vegetable species here.  The man and his perspective have so much to answer for!   I know people who spend perfectly good weekend time yanking non-native invasive vegetation out by the roots, and who redo their entire landscaping scheme to eliminate non-native species.  It turns out that the whole ecosystem is dependent on having the same plants that animals have evolved to interact with, eating and breeding, and vice-versa, to maintain healthy populations of species.  People are coming to understand that the appropriate stance is to trust nature and work with it, not try to rearrange it to “improve” it into a more picturesque or convenient state.

The feather is tan; it has no pattern; It is so gossamer, so transparent, that I can hold it over the page of a book and still read the print. It is about 6 cm long; it weighs practically nothing.  You’d expect that, if you knew that English sparrows weigh between 24 and 39 grams, or 0.85 to 1.40 oz.  Yes, the whole bird!  Even a big bird like an osprey weighs about 5 pounds tops.  In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia, a book full of observations he made with his microscope; he was the first scientist to do so.  A member of the Royal Society, he dedicated his book to the King, Charles II, who generously funded research science.  The Royal Society was like the NSF of its day, in England.  In chapters 35 and 36 Hooke discusses bird feathers.  He marvels at many things, such as the “branchings” (hairs) of the feathers and how they interlace, and the particular combination of stiffness, strength, and lightness that feathers possess.  He applies the scientific method by accurately observing details that are difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye, and recording and analyzing them.

There is much to marvel at here, even if the source of my feather is a species that we might prefer to have stayed home in the British Isles.

© Arnold Bradford, 2022

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