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Museum Mondays: Birds of a (certain) feather require federal permits

April 17, 2011

It’s well known that the Logan Museum curates important Native American collections, but most people are unaware that these collections contain over 1,000 bald and golden eagle feathers and parts (represented by approximately 160 objects), all of which are subject to regulations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Federal Eagle Exhibition Permit is required to possess bald or golden eagles (living or dead), parts, nests, and eggs for educational purposes. As you might imagine, obtaining the permit needed to legally possess these objects is not an easy task. Museums must not only differentiate between eagle feathers and other types of feathers commonly found on objects (like turkey feathers), but also differentiate between bald and golden eagle feathers and parts. This is especially complex considering that adult eagles can contain over 7,000 feathers and that the feather colors and patterns differ depending the type of feather and age of the bird.

Enter Catie Anderson`10. Catie tackled this challenge as her spring 2011 honors term project under the supervision of the Logan Museum’s curator of collections, Nicolette Meister. Catie’s lifelong interest in ornithology, fieldwork experience with Ken Yasukawa studying red-winged blackbirds, interdisciplinary self-designed major (Society and the Environment), and museum studies minor positioned her as the ideal person to help fulfill the museum’s permit requirements. Catie spent countless hours in collections’ storage areas properly identifying bald and golden eagle feathers and parts, and later worked with the museum’s records to document acquisition dates.

The project was not a simple one.

“While some objects were adorned with complete eagle flight feathers in good condition, making identification easy, other objects were much more challenging,” Catie says. “The Logan Museum has a large collection of arrows, some hundreds of years old, whose feathers have little plumage remaining intact.”  To properly identify these feathers I looked through a magnifying glass to examine grooves along the shaft of the feather to distinguish between eagle feathers and wild turkey feathers.

A magnifying glass and Biology professor Ken Yasukawa assisted in identifying some of the more trying plumage. “Another challenging aspect of the project has been the identification of down feathers, especially on Hopi Kachina dolls, which are often accented by the fluffy body feathers of birds,” Catie says. “Some eagle body feathers are more easily recognized based on size and color while others are very nondescript and could easily be from any species of bird. Only DNA samples could confirm some of these cases.”

Catie’s honors term project is a crucial component of the museum’s BGEPA compliance efforts. Her work identified the collection items subject to permitting requirements and positioned museum staff to take the next steps necessary to obtain possession permits, meaning her honors term served a dual purpose: a perfect capstone to her Beloit education, and a valuable service to the museum.