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April 04, 2013

Birds of a Feather: NMAI collaborates with Natural History to identify the feathers used in an Otoe headdress

Otoe headdress
Otoe headdress, date unknown. Collected in Oklahoma in 1910 by Mark R. Harrington. 3/2750 

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. Carla Dove with Otoe headdress
Smithsonian ornithologist Carla Dove studying the headdress in the Feather Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History. 
Although always very busy with her work as a member of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Dr. Dove has regularly taken time to examine mystery feathers in the NMAI collections. Most recently, Marian Kaminitz, head of Conservation at NMAI, and I transported an object to NMNH in order for Dr. Dove to analyze the feathers and make an accurate identification. The 19th-century Otoe headdress from Oklahoma included an unidentified bird head with a yellow beak and green coloration on the head feathers. It also incorporated two turkey feather “beards” and bundles of unidentified large feather quills that are dark orange.

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.

Photo6c Duck Barbules
Under the microscope: Barbules on the shafts of one species of duck down. 50 microns (µ)—the scale at the bottom of the image—is described as the thickness of a sheet of paper or width of a human hair. 
This prompted Dr. Dove to advance to the second method of visual evaluation for unidentified feathers: microscopic examination of the down. The bird feather identification laboratory has a dual binocular microscope that allows scientists to view the tiny barbules on strands of bird down. Barbules—nodes on the shaft of the down invisible to the naked eye—bear signature shapes specific only to one bird, much like fingerprints. Some barbules look like rings on a curtain rod, others are heart-shaped or look like bamboo. Dr. Dove has an encyclopedic collection of glass slides of barbule samples from thousands of birds. Looking through the microscope at a reference slide of barbules from an eagle, side by side with a slide of a down shaft from the bundles on the Otoe headdress, we were able to make a conclusive identification of the orange shafts as eagle feather.

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

Gail Joice is Collections manager for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 


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