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Bird-feather counters exhibited pluck, tediously

hat with feathers 1910

Feathers, on a hat on a person, circa 1910. Photo: Library of Congress.

Many humans have spent days, months or years counting feathers. Here are exciting highlights from some of their reports.

In 1936 Alexander Wetmore, of the US National Museum in Washington, gathered all the published reports he could find about someone or other counting how many feathers were on particular birds. “The work of feather counting is tedious and exacting,” he explained, “and yields small result relative to the labour involved.”

Among Wetmore’s gatherings from his peers: “Dr Jonathan Dwight found 3,235 feathers on a male Bobolink taken in spring. RC McGregor has recorded 1,899 feathers on a Savannah sparrow … and 6,544 on a glaucous winged Gull … Miss Phoebe Knappen has reported 11,903 feathers on an adult female mallard … the bird being one that had died from phosphorus poisoning.”

Wetmore proceeded to have someone he could count on do some do some new counting on his behalf: “The actual labour of counting was done under my direct supervision by Marie Siebrecht (now Mrs James Montroy) who, employed as an assistant, worked carefully and conscientiously at a long and somewhat tedious task”….

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

Improbable Research