Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Feather of a Different Color

You'd think since I live and work with Alice that I'd catch anything unusual almost right away. I guess I can be a little slow....

A month or two ago as Alice was showering and bathing, I was startled to see that one primary feather on her bad wing was all rusty-reddish. On closer inspection I could see that the wide part of the feather vane (the part normally covered by adjacent feathers) was missing all the dark pigmented stripes it would normally have. The narrow side of the vane (what you would normally see when the feathers are arranged properly and not spread) was normally colored. Both sides of the tip of the feather were also normally colored. Weird!

But I felt dumb. This feather was fully grown, which means it had probably been like this for at least a year! So much for being observant.

I racked my brains to try to figure out what would cause such a weird coloration. Looking back through my notes I found that on April 24, 2003 blood started dripping from a developing feather. Alice had been fussing with it while sitting on her perch at work, and I freaked out when I realized she had blood dripping from her. I knew that there is a strong supply of blood to developing feathers, and there was a chance she could bleed to death if it wasn't stopped. Thankfully it stopped within a minute on its own, before I was even able to compose myself enough to call Alice's vet. Now I'm wondering if she injured that developing feather/feather follicle enough to result in the strange coloration I'm now seeing.

I talked with several owl people to get their theories on this weird feather coloring. Bob Nero noted that his Great Gray Owl, Lady Grayl, is developing white patches on her feathers that increase in size with each successive molt. But it is a complete lack of pigmentation he's seeing in each spot. This could be due to age, since Grayl is 19 years old. Alice is a mere 8 years old.

Injury seems to be the main theory at this point, and I'm thinking it ties in to the bleeding feather from two years ago.

Now it's a waiting game. Will she drop the feather this year? Large owls usually replace all their tail feathers (rectrices) every year, but take 2-3 (or sometimes more) years to replace all their flight feathers on their wings (remiges.) I'm loosing hope that Alice will drop the feather in question this year. But when it does drop, will the replacement feather have the same strange color, or will it be normal? Only time will tell.

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