Birds of a Feather: NMAI collaborates with Natural History to identify the feathers used in an Otoe headdress
At the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), we have thousands of objects from all over the Western Hemisphere made using feathers. Some of these objects include eagle feathers, which are highly protected under the U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Other feathers are protected by the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The museum is not able to send any of these objects on loan outside the United States unless we obtain Fish and Wildlife Department permits for transport of the specific kinds of protected bird feather used on the object.
So, how do we identify mystery feathers that may be old, fragmentary, dyed, or otherwise modified on an American Indian object? We are fortunate to collaborate with one of Smithsonian’s top scientists, Dr. Carla Dove, feather identification specialist at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Dr. Dove is a world-renowned expert on identifying birds that have caused aircraft crashes. (And no, she did not change her name to match her profession!)
Dr. Dove uses two visual methods of identification. One is direct comparison with feathers in the extensive collection of bird skins at NMNH. By looking at feathers side-by-side, comparing our object feathers to those on a preserved bird skin, Dr. Dove is able to confirm most feathers’ species. For the Otoe headdress, the small bird head with a curving yellow beak and soft striped brown feathers matched specimens of the Greater Prairie Chicken. In the 19th century, this bird was widely distributed across the prairies of the west where the Otoe lived. The green coloration on the head feathers is actually pigment applied to them by the maker of the headdress.
The large orange feather quills in the bundles on the sides of the headdress, however, were not immediately comparable to those of a specific bird. Dr. Dove guessed that they could be eagle feathers, due to their size, which had been dyed with orange pigment.
If we ever lend this Otoe headdress to an exhibition outside of the United States, we will have to go through a permit process with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to receive permission to transport the object abroad. The purpose of laws like these is to protect eagles, migratory birds, and endangered species from illicit trafficking by poachers and smugglers. The penalties for not obtaining a permit can include confiscation of the object and large fines for the Smithsonian. We have confidence that we will not run this risk for our loan objects, thanks to the expert eye (and microscope) of Dr. Carla Dove! We thank her and the Museum of Natural History for this cordial collaboration with NMAI Collections and Conservation.
Gail Joice is Collections manager for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.