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What is a pin feather?

Hello BZT fans! Your probably sick of us talking about Pin feathers. Or your wondering what they truly are and what they mean. Well lets break it down together.

Photo Credit Above : By Jeff Herrick, Bird Zone Taxidermy, Neenah, WI (The black and bluish sleeves you see in the photos are all pin feathers)

To make a long story short, pin feathers are underdeveloped feathers that are growing back from a molt. What is a molt? Bird's lose their feathers and grow new ones several times per year. In rare instances only once per year. But on average birds in the wild do it based on season changes and nutritional availability. For us here in Wisconsin, it's typically in the summer time and early fall that birds lose many of their feathers and start to grow new ones. However, each bird is on it's own schedule with lots of deciding factors. Early in the season here in Wisconsin, September/October, we can find lots of pin feathered specimens. Although it may seem cold out and unlikely a bird has not finished growing it's feathers completely, it is totally possible and often likely. Some way worse than others. We need to ensure you have a proper specimen that makes sense for the taxidermy bench and your trophy wall. Point being, pin feathers make it difficult to produce a quality bird mount. Since they are not completely developed or attached to the skin completely, they can fall out during the fat removal process (fleshing) and or the wash/bath process. If they fall out, they leave a void in their place. If your specimen has lots of pin feathers, then you will likely have lots of voids where those feathers once were. That in the end... produces a bird than can look lumpy, blotchy, or naturally like it's missing feathers. Again, depending on how far along your bird is, you may not notice much at all. Some would be considered nearly un-mountable because they are so early in the process, the pin tubes are extremely large and prevalent. This makes it extremely difficult to yield a quality outcome.

Some will argue that a "Good" bird taxidermist can mount a bird with pin feathers. For the sake of argument, I will answer, but it's much more complicated than that. To be clear, any bird can be mounted or go through and complete the taxidermy process. Will it yield a fetching or desirable result? Usually not if it has pin feathers. Are all pin feathers created equal? No. This is why we take it on a case by case basis. Just because someone tells you they got a good looking mount back that had pin feathers, does not necessarily mean your specimen will turn out the same...skill level set aside here on the taxidermist part. It all depends how far along your particular specimens pin feathers or molt is in it's cycle. My best advice is to bring in to your taxidermist and have them look at your specific bird. Don't listen to social media self proclaimed bird taxidermy experts (that have never mounted a feather in their lifetime, or their taxidermy buddy told them so) in Facebook comments. The truth is simple, it needs to be taken on a case by case basis. It goes without saying that it needs to be taken on a case by case basis with a taxidermist familiar with birds and pin feathered specimens.

Pin Feathers

After the feather is lost, the body grows a new one, just as in the case of hair. However, growing a feather is a more complicated process because it requires active, growing cells up into the emerging feather. There is a circulating blood vessel bringing nutrients up into the developing shaft of the feather. The feather tissue is very delicate at this time, so the feather is encased in a protective, cylindrical sheath that is made up of keratin (which also is in fingernails). This makes the feather appear like a pin. This pin feather can come in several tones, including one that is dark at the base, which indicates the presence of the blood supply. Therefore it is referred to as a “blood feather.”

Eventually, the blood supply starts to decrease and absorb when the tissue has fully developed. While it is doing so, the protective sheath starts to peel off in tiny pieces during the preening process. Some people think these tiny pieces look like dandruff. During this time a bird might appear to be more itchy than normal. The feather is curled up inside the sheath and unfurls as it comes off, leaving a fully functioning feather once it is all cleaned off by the bird’s preening with its beak.

The bird can reach these pin feathers with its beak to preen feathers from the “shoulders” down but typically requires other birds in its flock to clean the feathers on its head and the upper part of the back of its neck. A person can fill this role by using his or her fingertip to gently pinch and roll the white part of the sheath that is at the tip of the feather. Otherwise, the remnant of the growing feather remains until the sheath eventually falls off. Nutritional deficiencies sometimes affect how easy or difficult sheaths are removed from the pin feathers, so if you don’t know if what you’re feeling is normal, contact your veterinarian.

The new feather, still with the blood supply although protected with the sheath, is still vulnerable to injury. The sheath might be weakened due to underlying health issues, such as infectious disease or nutritional deficiencies. Enough trauma can also cause the sheath to split or break, which causes bleeding, especially on a large feather, such as those found on the wings and tails. Historically, the standard therapy was to pull a broken blood feather no matter what. Doing so, however, increases the chance of injury to the follicle that produces the feather. Recently, more veterinarians recommend not pulling these blood feathers out unless the hemorrhage is likely to affect the bird’s health. (If you are unsure as to whether a blood feather should be removed, ask your avian veterinarian.)

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