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Winchester-Nabu Detective Agency Year Six: Case File No. 50-310


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Where We Left Off:

The detective agency encountered evidence of giants (rather at least one giant) in the neighborhood.

Birds of a Feather:

Have you seen birds in Lowe’s or an airport? They get into places that are surprising. I always find myself wondering if they chose to enter those buildings intentionally. I’ve heard of snakes stowing away on planes (for real). Cats that take buses in cities like London and New York. Gus and Oliver would never do such things. They hate traveling!

collage of birds

Back in 2021, during our routine bird surveillance, the cats and I discovered wrens making good use of a hole in the side of the building. It was for a chimney originally and that’s been gone for a long time. The wrens enter the hangar and have access to all the exposed beams. I’m sure they can nest in there up in the rafters, but I haven’t been able to find a nest. This meant that finding a feather in the garage wasn’t a mystery, but was a little unusual.

black cat Gus sniffing a feather held by human hand

There were a couple of reasons why finding a feather on the floor was weird: the color of the feather and the location of the feather. The color appeared to be a reddish-brown; the main reason I wasn’t sure if there was brown coloring was because I thought perhaps the feather was dirty with oil and muck from vehicles. Gus found it right in the middle of the open area where the truck is often parked. This was definitely not a Carolina wren feather. I knew that much right away.

There are also different bunches of arrows stored in the building. I believe they’re from different friends of The Grumpy Old Man. I don’t know why they’re here. None of us are archers. I can tell these are not hunting arrows. They look more like toys with blunt ends and colorful feathers as opposed to black or gunmetal grey carbon-fiber hunting arrows. A lot of feathers used in toys and crafts have been dyed. With that understanding, I had to see if the feather was genuinely the color I was seeing or if it was dyed.

collage of reddish-brown feather found on the garage floor

Merlin App doesn’t have the ability to identify feathers, but iNaturalist does. With iNaturalist, if you don’t get a match, you can still post your observation and let the community enter their best suggestions. The original poster then has the ability to agree or not with someone’s suggested ID. I uploaded my images of this feather to see what other people thought.

It didn’t take long before community members on iNaturalist suggested this was indeed a red feather belonging to a cardinal. That was my own hunch as well, but I had also hoped to get suggestions on whether this was from a male or female cardinal. That might seem easy at first: male cardinals are bright red; female cardinals are brown. But in reality, birds have intricate coloring that can be in gradients, banding (stripes), or other patterns.

Various feathers found over the years:

Oliver checked out the feather once I returned to the office. “What if this is another situation where the color isn’t actually the color? Like the blue jays.”

He was right. There are so many things I don’t know about birds. It was perfect timing by the universe that I was listening to the podcast, Criminal, on Stitcher. It covered the fascinating career of Roxie Laybourne who learned on the job at the Smithsonian to become the country’s leading expert on feathers and feather identification! It didn’t dawn on me that other people would have been studying feathers to solve mysteries this whole time! Roxie Laybourne had been a taxidermist for 15 years when she was asked to identify feathers from an airplane bird strike accident. That first mystery propelled her into this subject matter for the rest of her life.

Gus smelling feathers

Getting back to Oliver’s point: blue jays are not blue! What if the feather I had taken into evidence wasn’t actually reddish-brown?

As it turns out, our internet searching paid off. The red of cardinals is actually the color red and not the magical science of lightwaves or vision.

If a cardinal’s red feather were ground into powder, the powder would be red. Grinding a green feather from the speculum of a Green-winged Teal would make yellow powder. And the feathers of a bluebird would reduce to a drab brown powder. Clearly, there is more to the color of a feather than meets the eye. —Julie Feinstein

It turns out that the bird’s diet will also have a great effect on what color pigment is stored in the feather (the core or the cortex). It’s a different story when you get into the details about birds that appear blue or green. And still, an even different source from that is found in the red plumage of parrots; that red is created by the rare psittacin pigments only found in their kind.

Cardinals acquire orange, red, and yellow pigments from many seed sources, continuously keeping red plumes vibrant. A caged cardinal fed carotenoid-free seeds would lose its brilliance with successive molts. —Julie Feinstein

I met up with Ollie and Gus again and explained what I found. “So you see, sometimes the red is from one type of pigment and sometimes it’s from another kind of pigment. One thing that’s true for all is that red colors do in fact come from red pigments. Orange and yellow also come from red but it depends which part of the feather they are in and how much is present.”

Gus, the mini panther of the house, said, “Hrmmm. So when people say orange is the new black, they are incorrect.”

“Right,” I said. “Black, brown, grey, and some yellows come from melanin not psittacinfulvins, carotenoids, or porphyrins.”

Ollie gave me one of his looks. “Your pronunciation is terrible.”

“I know. So is my spelling. My typing is, somehow, even worse.” It’s true. I go to YouTube a lot to find out how to pronounce many words. I still get them wrong. For example, I know it is unlikely I will ever use the Sanskrit for downward-facing dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana.

I asked Ollie and Gus to see if they detected anything out of the ordinary about the feather. Oliver loves feathers. They are among the few things that ramp up his excitement and energy. He’s our Roxie Laybourne.

Oliver took a look at Gus then at my bed. Gus doesn’t usually let Ollie peacefully rest on this bed. They’re territorial. Yet, Gus will insist he can sleep on whatever bed he damn well wants to be on. Ollie jumped up and made a move to get settled.

“I did not detect any magick on this specimen. It appears to be a mundane world cardinal feather. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting tired,” Oliver said.

I wasn’t sure if Gus would respect Ollie and leave him alone. Usually, Gus takes advantage of Ollie’s sleepiness and tries to hump him. To avoid a situation, I put Lambdo Calrissian on the bed as soon as Gus jumped up. His lamb serves as a surrogate for his needs. While Gus made biscuits on top of his lamb and Ollie formed himself into a loaf, I began to type this up.

register page for European Starling specimen collected by Roxie Laybourne for the Smithsonian
Scanned registration page for specimens in the Smithsonian Institute.

Case Findings:

The feather discovered on April 3, 2023 was a single feather from a Northern Cardinal, a commonly found bird in New Jersey.

  • no magick or other worldly characteristics
  • sex identification: not confirmed
  • age: likely adult

Case Status: Closed


Feinstein, J. (2021, October 13). Where feather colors come from: Why cardinals are red and grackles are shiny – BirdWatching. BirdWatching.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab. (n.d.-b). The Feather Atlas – Feather Identification and Scans – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory.

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