Birds of a Feather

Ever wonder what happens to bird feathers once the birds at the Saint Louis Zoo are done with them? Every year, birds go through a process called molting, which is the periodic shedding and replacement of worn plumage. More simply stated, molting means losing old feathers and re-growing new ones.

Birds can molt hundreds of feathers each year. With over 800 birds at the Zoo, that’s a lot of feathers! These molted feathers can be used in many different ways. Some are given to various birds to use as nest material during breeding season. Others go to the Zoo’s education department for use in classes, camps and docent carts. Feathers are also distributed as enrichment items to other animals in the Zoo. Big cats, primates and elephants all enjoy sniffing, inspecting and playing with their newfound feathers.

Native American Feather Distribution

Some feathers are intended for yet another use: ornaments, ceremonies and prayers. Native American tribes have cherished bird feathers for thousands of years and use them in a variety of ways, from religious ceremonies to making head ornaments, fans and prayer plumes. Many of these feathers are no longer readily available to native peoples, so the Zoo helps to supply some of our birds’ feathers once they have molted.

At the Illinois State Museum, Curator of Anthropology Dr. Jonathan Reyman started the Feather Distribution Project to supply feathers to the people who need them. The project gives feathers to native peoples to use, while helping to conserve wild birds and their habitats, and encouraging the humane treatment of captive birds. Formal requests for specific feathers are submitted to Dr. Reyman, who sends the feathers he has available.

Since 2007, the Saint Louis Zoo’s feathers have been sent to as many as 15,000 people in at least 10 Pueblos, 12 Hopi villages, and Native American Church groups in 20 states from coast to coast.

No feather is wasted. Even if the feather is not considered sacred or suitable for ceremonial and religious purposes, it is still used. Young children are given these feathers to practice different techniques so that when they do receive sacred feathers, they will have acquired the skills needed to prepare them properly.

Native Americans have ancient traditions with close ties to feathers and the birds that carry them. Even if the feather comes from a bird that is not native to North America, the colors and patterns within the feathers may have significant meanings. If a trait or aspect of a non-native bird is admired, such as strong family bonds, the feathers that Native Americans receive from these non-native species can help them emulate these qualities in their own lives.

Hornbill Feathers for Indonesia and Malaysia

There is another similar program that the Zoo is involved in using Asian hornbill tail feathers. Tail feathers from our great and rhinoceros hornbills are collected and shipped to Indonesia and Malaysia as part of a joint Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ program. The goals of the program are similar to the Feather Distribution Project: by helping the people, the birds and their habitats are helped as well.

Native Birds of Prey

Native birds of prey feathers are protected by the federal government. However, bald eagles are considered sacred in many Native American cultures and are used in many of their traditions. Since eagles are a federally protected species, feathers from the Zoo’s bald eagle are sent to the Federal Repository and then distributed to enrolled tribal members.

Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative

Also, a new pilot program through the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been started in conjunction with the Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative based in Cyril, OK. The project is the Sia Essential Species Repository, and at this facility bird of prey and other migratory bird feathers are collected and distributed to enrolled tribal members. The Saint Louis Zoo has started sending feathers from our hawks, owls, and other North American migratory birds.

Flocking Together

All of this is done free of charge by all parties, and benefits not only the native people, but the birds as well. Supplying molted feathers reduces the need to pluck birds of their feathers, and also reduces the demand for illegal poaching and killing of birds in the wild.