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Them As Count Bird Feathers

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

Research involving feathers
compiled by Stephen Drew, Improbable Research staff

Through the years, many humans have spent days, months, or years counting feathers on birds. Here are some of those counters’ reports to their fellow humans.

Wetmore’s Comprehensive Feather-Counting Report
In 1936 Alexander Wetmore of the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C., gathered all of the reports he could find in which someone or other counted how many feathers were on particular birds:

“The Number of Contour Feathers in Passeriform and Related Birds,” Alexander Wetmore, The Auk,
vol. 53, 1936, pp. 159–69.

“The work of feather counting is tedious and exacting,” Wetmore admitted, “and yields small result relative to the labor involved.” Among Wetmore’s gatherings from his predecessors:

Dr. Jonathan Dwight found 3235 feathers on a male Bobolink taken in spring. R.C. McGregor has recorded 1899 feathers on a Savannah sparrow (presumably a western form) and 6544 on a Glaucous winged Gull both enumerations being made from study skins. Miss Phoebe Knappen has reported 11,903 feathers on an adult female Mallard obtained March 19, 1932 at Pohick, Virginia, the bird being one that had died from phosphorus poisoning.

Wetmore proceeded to have someone he could count on do some new counting on Wetmore’s behalf and for his credit:

The actual labor of counting was done under my direct supervision by Marie Siebrecht (now Mrs. James Montroy) who, employed as an assistant, worked carefully and conscientiously at a long and somewhat tedious task...

Wetmore kept records of where each bird entered his locus of control. Many came via a single collecting point:

I am indebted to Miss Phoebe Knappen for a number of birds killed by striking the Washington Monument during fall migration.

Wetmore detailed how Montroy performed her function:

In this study contour feathers alone have been considered, the downs and filo plumes being disregarded. The feathers were plucked a few at a time by means of fine tweezers and were counted in lots of one hundred, a check mark being made for each hundred. At any interruption in the work the number counted was set down at once to avoid error....

The feathers as counted were placed in a glass beaker on which there was a paper cover held in place by a rubber band. By means of a small hole cut in the paper top it was possible to confine the feathers and to ascertain the weight of the plumage.....

With ordinary small birds one specimen was counted each day, two being handled on a few occasions. The work was exacting so that more prolonged effort was liable, through fatigue, to lead to errors.

Patterns emerged, but not as many as were Wetmore seems to have expected:

The bird with the smallest number as might be expected, is the smallest in the group, a Rubythroated Hummingbird taken June 11 that had 940 feathers....

Size however is not necessarily a criterion in number of feathers, since a Mourning Dove taken June 11 with 2635 feathers is about equivalent to a female Robin on April 14 with 2587 and not much in excess of a Bluebird on April 1 with 2550.

Wetland’s paper presents a lengthy list of birds and their feather counts. A small portion of that list is reproduced here.

A small portion of the list of bird-feather counts in Wetmore’s comprehensive study, “The Number of Contour Feathers in Passeriform and Related Birds.”

Earlier and later investigators presented more specialized reports, often of but a single bird.

How Many Feathers in a Gull, How Many in a Sparrow
“The Number of Feathers in a Bird Skin,” Richard C. McGregor, The Condor, January 1902, p. 17. McGregor, in the Philippines, reports:

Last summer I put in spare time in making a count of the feathers on a gull and a sparrow. As there is no prospect of being able to continue the same on other species I will give the record here. These are not estimates, but actual counts feather by feather.

Ammodramus sandwickensis. Body including tail feathers, 762; legs, 78; head and neck, 710; wings, 349; total, 1899.

Larus gaucescens. Head, 2620; neck, 803; back and interscapulars, 570; breast and flanks, 880; wings, 721 + 748; legs and tail, 202; total, 6544.

How Many Feathers on a Duck
“Number of Feathers on a Duck,” Phoebe Knappen, The Auk, vol. 49, 1932, p. 461. Knappen (yes, the Knappen who gathered Washington Monument collision corpses) reports:

I recently counted 11,903 feathers (exclusive of down) on an adult female mallard.

Number of Feathers on a Swan
“Number of Contour Feathers of Cygnus and Xanthocephalus,” George Andrew Ammann, The Auk, vol. 54, 1937, pp. 201–2. Ammann, in Michigan, reports:

The Whistling Swan (Cygnusc columbianus) as collected in Erie Township, Monroe County, Michigan. The feathers were counted by Pierce Brodkorb, Leonard W. Wing, William J. Howard, and myself. The only feathers not actually counted were those along the margin of a cut in the neck estimated to be 1200, and those of the right wing. The latter was estimated by using the number of feathers counted on the left wing, which is 609. It is interesting to compare the number of head and neck feathers (20,177) with those on the rest of the bird (5039).

Number of Feathers on Some Birds
“The Number of Feathers in Some Birds,” Pierce Brodkorb, Quarterly Journal of the Florida Academy of Sciences, 1951.

Number of Feathers in Passerine Birds
“Number of Feathers and Body Size in Passerine Birds,” F.B. Hutt and Lelah Ball, The Auk, vol. 55, 1938, pp. 651-657.

Number of Feathers on an English Sparrow
“Number of Contour Feathers in the English Sparrow.” Arthur E. Staebler, The Wilson Bulletin, 1941, pp. 126-127.

Wing: Number of Feathers on a Cowbird
“Number of Contour Feathers on a Cowbird Molothrus ater,” Leonard W. Wing, The Auk, vol. 69, 1952, p. 90.

Number of Feathers on a Bald Eagle
“Number of Feathers and Weights of Various Systems in a Bald Eagle,” Pierce Brodkorb, The
Wilson Bulletin, vol. 67, no. 2, April–June 1955. Brodkorb reports:

In [a previous paper] I estimated that the weight of the plumage might exceed that of the skeleton. This is substantiated by the present data; in fact, the weight of the skeleton of the eagle was less than half that of the feathers.

An Anomaly
“An Anomaly in the Number of Secondary Feathers in the Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus).” Albert Bertolero, Lluís Gustamante, Jordi Figuerola, and Xavier Riera, Butlletí del Grup Català d’Anellament, vol. 9, 1992, pp. 17–8. Bertolero, Gustamante, Figuerola, and Riera report:

Recently, Copete et al. (1992) have also described an extra secondary in the Serin (Serinus serinus). The main differences between their report and our bird was that in their case the feathers were harmoniously distributed without any anomaly in the disposition of the feathers, while the extra secondary of our Reed Bunting was most unharmoniously located.

Caution About Feather Holes
“The Origin of Feather Holes: A Word of Caution,” Csongor I. Vágási, Journal of Avian Biology, epub April 10, 2014. Vágási, at Babeeş -Bolyai University, Romania, reports:

Feather holes represent a class of feather damage that is attributed to the chewing bites of Phthirapteran lice. Consequently, hole counts were used as an approximation of lice infestation intensity when studying bird–lice interaction. Here, I express some reservations regarding this practice. I survey the literature concerning feather holes and the state of the hole–lice concept, highlight some uncertainties regarding its reliability, offer possible alternative explanations for the origin of holes, and suggest directions for future investigations. I conclude that the origin of holes is still unknown.

How Many Feathers in One Tit Nest
“Numbers of Feathers in Nests of Long-tailed Tit,” A. Steven Corbet, British Birds, vol. 16, no. 8, January 1923, p. 217. Corbet reports:

With reference to the note on this subject [by Musselwhite], the following record may be of interest. A nest of the Long-tailed Tit was found at Aldworth, Berkshire, on June 17th, 1922, and appeared to be of normal size. On counting the feathers [in the nest], it was found that the total was 2,457.

How Many Feathers in Two Tit Nests
“Numbers of Feathers in Nests of Long-tailed Tit,” D. W. Musselwhite, British Birds, vol. 16, no. 7, December 1922, p. 189. Musselwhite reports:

During the nesting season of 1922 I obtained two perfectly normal nests of the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus roseus) with the object of ascertaining the number of feathers in each. A very careful count was made, with the result that 802 were found in the first nest and 1,518 in the second. It is surprising to see such a wide difference in the totals and to know that the lining of a single nest contained more than 1,500 feathers.

Savage Consideration of How Many Feathers in Tit Nests
“Numbers of Feathers in Nests of Long-tailed Tit,” E.U. Savage, British Birds, vol. 16, no. 8, January 1923, p. 217. Savage reports:

With reference to Mr. D.W. Musselwhite’s note on the difference in the numbers of feathers in two nests of the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus roseus) examined by him, the following particulars of six nests examined by me seem to show that the number of feathers in the nest is largely a question of the distance of the nest from a farmyard or poultry run where feathers can be obtained.

Miles B. Markus, Feather-Counter
Miles B. Markus, at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, published a series of reports about feather counting. A 1966 newspaper clipping shows a photo of Markus. The accompanying caption says that he has counted more than 200,000 feathers from birds. (Thanks to Professor Markus’s daughter Vicki for sending us the clipping, along with a note saying: “A newspaper reporter once suggested that he should count the number of hairs on a cat, but fortunately he did not carry out this research.”)

Clipping from the July 19, 1966 edition of the Pretoria News, showing Miles B. Markus, the University of Pretoria’s famed feather-counter.

Among his feather-counting publications, one can find:

“The Number of Feathers in the Laughing Dove Streptopelia senagalensis (Linnaeus),” Miles B. Markus, Ostrich, vol. 34, no. 2, 1963, pp. 92–4.

“The Number of Feathers on Birds,” Miles B. Markus, Ibis, vol. 107, no. 3, 1965, p. 394.

“Notes on the Natal Plumage of South African Passeriform Birds.” Miles B. Markus, Ostrich, vol. 43, no. 1, 1972, pp. 17–22.

By the way, Markus is savored, in some circles, for a study that does not, at least directly, involve birds:

“Electron Microscopy of Stages of Isospora felis of the Cat in the Mesenteric Lymph Node of the Mouse,” Heinz Mehlhorn and Miles B. Markus, Zeitschrift für Parasitenkunde, vol. 51, no. 1, 1976, pp. 15–24.


The article above is from the September-October 2014 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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