Identifier Profiles: @featherenthusiast and @karakaxa

This is the second post in an ongoing monthly series highlighting the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist. 

Last month, in our blog post featuring @naufalurfi, I asked for suggestions of identifiers to feature and another user messaged me about the awesome work of two young naturalists who identify feathers on iNat: Amanda Janusz (@featherenthusiast) and Valia Pavlou (@karakaxa), which I thought was a great idea. So without further ado, and in alphabetical order, here are profiles of these two co-managers of the Found Feathers project, as well as some extra info about feathers.

@featherenthusiast

Amanda Janusz has lived in several states in the US, currently splitting her time between Pennsylvania and Georgia. She remembers collecting and organizing feathers while at the beach, but

the thought to try identifying feathers to the species level didn’t occur to me until around 2016, when I ran a web search and came across the USFWS Feather Atlas. Its feather identification tool helped me identify my first Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, and Mourning Dove feathers, among others. 

When I asked her why she’s passionate about feathers, Amanda told me “At the risk of sounding shallow, it’s the sheer beauty of feathers for me. 

Even at a tactile level, they have such a unique texture. It’s mind-boggling to think about the evolutionary odyssey that led to the formation of such complex structures! (Here’s one paper on feather evolution, accessible here.)

Every feather has its own story to tell, written in a language I am still learning to understand. I have a passion for feather identification because it helps me interpret the “what” and “why” wherever feathers are involved. 

Amada soon got a pair of binoculars and joined a birding camp run by the Georgia Ornithological Society, which helped her really put the feathers she’d found in greater context. In 2017, a guest speaker in her eighth grade science class brought up the Urban Oak Survey project, and Amanda was asked to use iNat for her class. She says, “[I] fell in love with it soon after once I discovered that people were posting feathers!

…[The] thing that got me really hooked on nature as a whole was [actually] iNaturalist! I created the Found Feathers project less than a week after I joined. I was inspired by the New Zealand-based Finding feather's folks project and made Found Feathers in order to include feather observations from around the world.

The amazing community on iNat with its infectious curiosity about the natural world opened my eyes to the bigger picture of life on Earth. I love how iNat encourages me to take a step beyond my narrow specialty because of course, feathers and birds exist not in a vacuum, but in the context of broader ecosystems.

When identifying on iNat, Amanda generally looks at recent observations in the Found Feathers project (she thanks identifiers like @claire146963 and others for adding observations to it) and uses an extensive number of resources, a list of which can be found on her website. For feather observations, she recommends documenting the finding location and pictures of both the front and back side with some sort of scale reference. 

And why does she identify feathers for strangers all over the world?

It’s addictive! I genuinely find it fun to help others solve mysteries that might have stumped them at first glance… My hope is that I can demonstrate to as many people as possible that feathers (and tracks and signs in general) are worth paying attention to because they can contain a wealth of information about the animals that live alongside us. 

And contrary to what you might think, Amanda is heading to college (at the Georgia Institute of Technology) to study Computer Science, not Ornithology. She explains,

iNaturalist has helped me see that technology can connect people to the natural world. I believe that a personal interest in nature is the first step towards conservation.

My next tentative goal for myself and feathers is to compile all my collective iNaturalist identification comments into a more easily navigable format so that I'm not reinventing the wheel with every identification, so to speak. And I don't know exactly how to do this yet, but I want to create a feather identification tool that somehow combines or improves upon existing models (e.g. the Feather Atlas's Identify Feather Tool, iNaturalist's computer vision).

(Photo of Amanda by Allen Janusz, taken at Big Bend National Park, Texas.)


@karakaxa

Valia Pavlou grew up in Athens, Greece, but was able to explore nature at her country house in the mountains. She was a dinosaur enthusiast, 

but that soon changed because of a sudden life twist caused by a single magpie feather I found on a hike. From that day on I started collecting feathers, which made me want to go outside more often and learn about birds, so soon enough I started doing some research and realized birds are just as interesting as extinct dinosaurs. I then decided that the career path of ornithology would be more fitting for me.

She came across iNaturalist in the Google Play Store, just searching for nature apps where she could store nature photos, and says 

I now mainly use iNaturalist to identify birds and feathers that others post to the site, which gives me a great opportunity to practice my ID skills on them and learn about species I previously knew nothing about. iNaturalist got me really interested in American birds, and has since been my main learning space for them. It's also of course an amazing place for me to get identification help in organisms I observe that aren't related to birds, since my only field of expertise is bird and feather ID.

Why feathers? To Valia, they’re incredibly complex and diverse. 

There are countless types of shape and pattern combinations, so every feather one will come across in nature or even on a web post is usually going to be unique in its own way. This creates a challenge for us feather identifiers since we always have to be prepared for something different, but that's exactly what makes the whole process fun and inspires me to continue what I do. Each feather can also tell a lot about the bird that dropped it, so i like to try and find out as much as i possibly can from little details that are often overlooked, like wear, growth bars, stress bars, melanin deficiencies, etc.

When identifying a feather observation, Valia first starts by examining the feather’s basic characteristics. “I first determine where on the bird a feather is placed based on its shape, then what family it's from based on its structure, and then what species it is from based on its color and size (when possible),” she explains. For someone getting into feather identification, she recommends really learning the types of feathers and their placement on the bird’s body, as well as the various structures of a feather, before starting to learn species-specific patterns and colors, as those can often be similar or identical between species. 

Identifying observations is one of my favorite pastime activities,” says Valia. 

Not only because I get to practice ID but also because I love helping others find out what species they've observed when they need help. Just how I learn from others identifying my own observations, the same thing happens when I identify their observations. Everyone on the site helps by passing knowledge from the field they specialize in to other members and vice versa.

As far as feather IDs are concerned, there are not that many people providing identifications in this field therefore I'm trying my best to fill the gap and pass the knowledge I have on it to others.

Valia is currently a college student studying Forestry and Environmental Management, which does cover biology and ecology, but she also spends much of her free time focusing on her own bird and feather related research. She would like to eventually become a conservation ornithologist.


Valia was kind enough to explain wear, melanin deficiencies, growth bars, and stress bars in feathers:

Wear stands for how damaged a feather is from natural elements (mostly the sun). Based on how bleached a feather looks you can sometimes guess the age of a bird and how much sun exposure it got compared to other species or individuals of its own species. Other types of weather damage can help you guess how long ago a feather was dropped.

Melanin deficiencies mostly happen when a bird has a bad diet lacking certain ingredients needed for melanin production. The feathers end up with white or pale patches where they shouldn't be. This can be linked to a genetic factor in some cases, but not necessarily. Feathers with white patches caused by a bad diet or old age are very easy to find on urban corvids, mostly on immature individuals and they're commonly mistaken as leucistic.

Growth bars are naturally occurring parallel dark and light bands present on every feather. Each light and dark band combo represents a 24 hour growth period for a feather. By counting all growth bars one can accurately estimate how long it took for a feather to grow. This is a great way to see if a bird was healthy and well fed while growing its feathers, since a larger than expected amount of growth bars can indicate that it was facing difficulties finding food, etc.

Stress bars look like perfectly straight scratches or cuts on feathers, but they can also show up in the form of aberrant color lines. They are parallel with growth bars, and they're indicators of disease, malnutrition or stress. They occur very often in wild birds, so they're not a big cause of concern unless they're severe or present in large amounts.


Here’s Amanda's list of some memorable feather observations on iNat, in no particular order:

- Northern Flicker breast feather, a perfect Valentine's Day gift!

- Great Horned Owl underwing covert with visibly pink porphyrin pigmentation. Usually you have to view owl feathers under UV to see this pink color! The concentration of porphyrins in this feather is remarkable.

- Asian Emerald Dove (significantly decomposed). I have used this specific observation many times to illustrate how columbids have extra-thick body feather shafts as compared to passerines.

- Wood Stork primary wing feather, an observation of my own. Wood Storks are seriously underrated for the shimmery beetle-green color that can be seen on the undersides of their wing feathers at certain angles.

- Sunbittern primary wing feather, a beautiful bird with strikingly unique plumage.

I've been finding feathers for long enough that I've checked off most of the feathers on my bucket list. However, I think it would be neat to find a Mandarin Duck sail feather, these super distinctive modified feathers that stick out like orange flags from the wing.


Finally, just a note about collecting feathers from the field in the United States. In general it’s illegal to take just about any feather of a species native to North America due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can find an official explanation of the law here

As Amanda says, “Photos are almost always the best way to go when ‘collecting’ feathers, legally speaking, unless you have the time to double-check every single piece of relevant legislation.”

Posted by tiwane tiwane, April 30, 2021 22:01

Comments

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A terrific article describing two terrific people! I know I've benefited from both of their contributions her on iNaturalist with feather identifications not just on my feathers but feathers posted by others that I used as reference. Best of luck to both Amanda and Valia in their future pursuits!

Posted by koaw 6 days ago (Flag)
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im glad to see these two recognized - the work they do with found feathers is amazing!

Posted by kuchipatchis 5 days ago (Flag)
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I have, myself, a bunch of feathers, and was curious about them, but never thought about the possibility of identified. So, I see they had done a step forward, quite amazing. Congratulations to @featherenthusiast and @karakaxa, and to whom "identified" them.
Once again, learning from iNaturalist.

Posted by nelson_wisnik 5 days ago (Flag)
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Awesome! Never really thought about feather identification, but it sounds very intriguing.

Posted by nathantaylor 5 days ago (Flag)
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I love these girls! the job they do is AMAZING!! They are so clever and brilliant, in many cases they can even reach the species level, just wow
Big fan of the Found Feather project!!!

Posted by diegoalmendras 5 days ago (Flag)
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Thank both of you for your help and service on this site! :)

Posted by ekmes 5 days ago (Flag)
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Great recognition. The Found Feathers project is a must-join for anyone who finds one and wonders!

Posted by kitty12 5 days ago (Flag)
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One of my favorite projects on here, so happy to see a spotlight on these two and their amazing work!! I know feather identification is often overlooked, and by birders and ornithologists no less, so it's great to see their field of IDing get the recognition and time it deserves. They have helped me tons with my own exploration of IDing avian skeletal remains, either me directly asking for help or quietly putting things I'm stumped on in Found Feathers. Really makes me happy to see this thoroughly well deserved shout out. Thanks so much you two

Posted by lizardking 5 days ago (Flag)
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My sincere congratulations to you both. I am happy to see these two awards because you have so much deserved it! Good job girls @karakaxa @featherenthusiast !

Posted by trapper84 5 days ago (Flag)
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Wow, awesome work! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the iNat community. The future is bright!

Posted by nlblock 5 days ago (Flag)
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It´s amazing work you two do. I love your passion and you knowledge in your field is respectable. Keep on going!

Posted by ajott 5 days ago (Flag)
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collecting passionately feathers since i was a child ...these two girls helped me to identify some of those i didn´t know...happy to share their knowledge...great project !!

Posted by anetteffm 5 days ago (Flag)
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Always love getting my IDs corrected by these two brilliant people, keep up the good work! :)

Posted by twan3253 5 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks you guys; you are amazing and much appreciated!

Posted by susanhewitt 5 days ago (Flag)
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super, that somebody can identify feathers, thank you

Posted by echocreek 5 days ago (Flag)
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I have enjoyed putting up every feather I find and waiting for someone to ID it.

Posted by chrisleearm 5 days ago (Flag)
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I've known @karakaxa for a year or so, and she's my go-to person for any feathers, and I have referred many folks to her. I don't know @featherenthusiast, but both of these young women give me hope for humanity! Thank you for bringing them both to life so to speak.

Posted by mamestraconfigurata 5 days ago (Flag)
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Amazing
I’ve always wondered how it was possible to ID a bird based on a feather
Keep up the amazing work

Posted by ck2az 5 days ago (Flag)
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@karakaxa has helped identify many of my feather observations. Cool to read about her!

Posted by leef 5 days ago (Flag)
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Wow, this is amazing!

Posted by robinellison 5 days ago (Flag)
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Congratulations to both identifiers.
@karakaxa has provided super-accurate identification skills with feathers and also with challenging images because of partial observations or lack of clear resolution; it is comforting to know - that she will know - which is critical to the quality of iNat observations for ID - and for confident corroboration of what is observed.

Posted by hawksthree 5 days ago (Flag)
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Great profiles of two skilled and very niche identifiers! Your work is truly appreciated!

Posted by driftlessroots 5 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you all for your kind words!
@karakaxa your knowledge and involvement with feathers and ornithology is extraordinary! You're doing great things in this field and I'm honored to have collaborated with you through iNat. Best of luck in your ongoing career, and please let me know if you ever publish a guide so that I can buy ten of them :)

Posted by featherenthusiast 5 days ago (Flag)
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Just like Amanda said, i have to thank everyone for your kind words! It's truly a pleasure to have so much support.

@featherenthusiast Your experience on the ornithology / feather identification field is also admirable! I'm glad you also get the chance to study museum specimens and ring birds which can be so beneficial. I've always wanted to do both but, it's very difficult here.
I'm so thankful to have found iNat and met you along with so many other wonderful people. All of this has taught me more than i could have ever imagined. Best of luck in your future career as well!
Haha thanks! I'll see what i'll do with this guide idea that i've had for a while now, hoping to get something out as soon as possible

Posted by karakaxa 4 days ago (Flag)
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They always so graciously help me with IDs! It's nice to see them recognised in a profile here. :)
I have a feather from yesterday I am going to submit to them :)

Posted by carolr 4 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you for this great and inspiring feature! Amanda's and Valia's enthusiasm about feathers has opened my eyes to another wonderful part of observing nature. All in all, it is a wonderful puzzle!

Posted by inasiebert 4 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks for the article! I appreciate the work these two people are doing.

Posted by sedgequeen 4 days ago (Flag)
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Great article! Thank you to @karakaxa for all the feather id help! Fantastic work

Posted by mitchm44 4 days ago (Flag)
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Thank you @featherenthusiast and @karakaxa for all your time and enthusiasm. We all have learned so much from you!

Posted by jim_carretta 4 days ago (Flag)
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Thanks for the article. I took a photo of feathers on a whim early in my experience with iNat. I was delighted that someone, Found Feathers, was interested! I am interested in the story behind the feathers. What caused the scattering of feathers to happen? Knowing the kind of feathers develops the story line! Many thanks for the feather identification.

Posted by sasksurely 4 days ago (Flag)
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Whenever I find a feather, I look forward to @karakaxa's and @featherenthusiast's insightful and generous comments and help with the ID, and hurry home to post the find. Thank you both so much. It's really wonderful to have learned a little bit more about you too.

Posted by andreacala 4 days ago (Flag)
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Wow, I totally forgot to add a call out for other identifiers to feature in the blog post itself. If anyone has a good candidate in mind, please send me a direct message (don't post as a comment here).

It's great to see so much appreciation in these comments. Our community is amazing.

Posted by tiwane 3 days ago (Flag)

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