Birds in the Alps – Finding Their Feathers

Bearded Vulture feather

It’s hard to describe how exciting it can be to find a bird’s feather. Especially when it comes from a rare or colourful species. Last week, I was bivouacking on a ridge at about 2200 meters altitude. While the sun was setting on Mont Blanc, I decided to go for a little stroll along the ridge. There were no people around, only ibexes grazing in an alpine meadow. Suddenly I saw an enormous brown feather on the ground. It was characteristically marbled and about 35 centimeters (13.7 inches) long. It could have only come from one bird: a golden eagle. While picking it up, I spotted a second feather. It was much smaller, but it had the same kind of marbled pattern.  It also – without a doubt – belonged to a golden eagle. Totally excited and not believing my luck, I picked up both feathers.  Since there was nobody around to share my excitement with (except for the ibexes), I decided to take some pictures. While I stood on the ridge holding those two eagle feathers up in the air, while the sun was setting on the snow-covered peaks of Mont Blanc, I think I might have been the happiest person on our planet.

Golden Eagle Feathers
Golden Eagle Feathers. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

The stories feathers tell

Some people believe that finding a bird’s feather has a spiritual meaning to it. I don’t know anything about that, all I know is that it definitely was a magical moment finding those two eagle feathers. I quite often find feathers while hiking through the Alps and sometimes they have obvious patterns with dots or stripes, or a beautiful bright colour. If I have any doubts about which bird has lost it, I will search the internet to find out. However, a feather doesn’t only tell you exactly which bird it belongs to. It’s also possible to tell from which part of the bird’s body a feather came. For example, the big eagle feather that I found was a wing feather from the right wing. The smaller feather was a dorsal feather which used to be attached at that point where the right wing meets the back.  

My top 6

The eagle feathers are by far the best feathers I have ever found, but over the years I came across some amazing ones in the Alps. Below you’ll find a list of my most favorite feathers. It’s not only a list of beautiful feathers, it also shows us how incredibly divers the birds in the Alps are. 

1. Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), (pictured above)

Look at this tail feather of the biggest bird in the Alps. It’s massive!!! I didn’t find it in the wild, but I came across it while working on an article about the astonishing comeback of bearded vultures in our region.

2.  Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

The most brightly coloured feather you can find in the Alps comes from a jay.  

Eurasian Jay Feather. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

3.  Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

This spotted feather is characteristic for a spotted woodpecker.  

Feather from a Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker Feather. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

4.  Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)

Another spotted feather, but this one belonged to a boreal owl.

Boreal Owl feather
Boreal Owl Feather. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

5.  Spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Just a single white spot on this feather of a spotted nutcracker.

Spotted Nutcracker feather
Spotted Nutcracker Feather. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

6.  Rock ptarmigans (Lagopus muta)

Rock ptarmigans have brown plumage in summer and white feathers in winter (which make them practically invisible in their high mountain environment). I found these feathers in autumn whilst the birds were molting into their white winter coat.  

Rock ptarmigans
Rock Ptarmigan Feather. Photo Credit: Simone van Velzen

If you find a feather

I hope you’ll be lucky enough to find some incredible feathers while trekking through the Alps. But please note, it’s illegal to keep and possess feathers of protected species! Feel free to look at and enjoy them, but don’t keep them.

Simone van Velzen

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