Country diary: one feather does not describe a whole bird
August is the feather month, when the sky is brought down to earth. Birds have worn out the summer: quills that beat the air are battered beyond repair; frayed coats cannot cover the winter to come. And so the autumn moult is in full drop.
Crow-black and pigeon-grey, the cast-offs of flocking birds litter the farm tracks. The vanes of wings and tails lie flat to the ground. White down drifts, its curls kissed by surface winds, tipped and barrel-rolled into the hedge bottom, or else crushed under foot or tractor tread. Either way, they lose all shape and form.
This black and white world is sometimes leavened with perplexing colour. I learned early that one feather does not describe a whole bird, just as a single piece will not make a complete jigsaw.
While white “thumbmarks” on black shout great spotted woodpecker, the boldly marked green woodpecker leaves a subtle signature, the merest sliver of lime at the leading edge. The other day I chanced on a skylark-brown feather smaller than my pinkie, drizzled with cream. My trusty old guide to tracks and signs narrowed it down to grey partridge.
Beneath the dark shade of path-side trees, a pale blaze beckons. I pick it up – a broad, short feather from a big bird, still carrying the curvature from when it was moulded to a right shoulder or upper limb.
Its edges are badly abraded, as if they had been filed down. This feather bears barn-owl livery in whitish patches and warm chestnut, though the darker brown shade along the shaft rings less true. Nevertheless, I say owl, and the book says not quite. But its pages offer no alternative.
I send a photo to a bird-ringer friend, and she shares it with colleagues. Within the hour comes back an answer – red kite. My old guide is simply not trusty when it comes to a bird that was so rare at the time of its production that it was excluded.
Did the kite feel its feather fall? Did it sense the itch of a new quill pushing through?
A summer over, an autumn begun, and another feather to add to my collection.