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Operation Feather Quest - Where Do Certain Migrating Songbirds Begin Their Journey? The Answer is in Their Feathers.


The Feather Quest was a book written in 1992 by Pete Dunne, father of the "World Series of Birding" challenges. Mr. Dunne sought to foster environmental awareness among readers through his year-long birding expedition. The motivation behind SFBBO citizen scientist and former SFBBO intern Emily Moffitt's own feather quest for research that will complete her Master's degree thesis is the same.


Pacific-slope flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) populations as well as many other neotropical migrant songbirds are declining throughout North America. Wildlife managers cannot pinpoint the direct causes of mortality because there is a lack of understanding of the relationship between individual songbirds and their geographic locations throughout migration. Advances in biogeochemical analyses have found that stable isotope ratios in the feathers of birds correlate with stable isotope ratios of breeding ground precipitation. The food that birds eat in their native breeding grounds has a weight of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen isotopes that is unique to the specific area. The feathers these birds grow contain such isotope ratios, providing researchers with invaluable information about their origins

Operation Feather Quest will examine the feathers of 180 migrating pacific-slope flycatchers captured at SFBBO's Coyote Creek Field Station. The data from these feathers will reveal critical migratory information on the birds' origins necessary to protect populations from further declining. 

Human impacts such as urbanization and development, disease and invasive species introduction and natural resource depletion in combination with a changing climate severely compromise the integrity of our planet. Wildlife extinction is a problem conservationists have been facing for many years, and birds are particularly sensitive to anthropogenic pressures. In order to implement effective, productive and sustainable management practices we must research and understand the entire spectrum of environmental change, starting with the smaller and more intricate levels of species.

Studies like Operation Feather Quest will help biologists better understand the grand phenomenon of bird migration and provide opportunities to discover and implement appropriate management techniques for wildlife populations at risk.  

For more information about this project, click here.