Feather Forensics Will Help Fight Wildlife Crime

Scientists have discovered the best method to recover human fingerprints from feathers and bird eggs, in an exciting new step to help tackle wildlife crime. It has previously been difficult to obtain prints from feathers and this research, published recently in Science and Justice, will allow the production of forensic evidence to track down people responsible for the illegal killing of birds.

The authors of the study are based in Scotland, where there were 73 bird crime incidents in 2013, while 120 birds of prey were reported to have been trapped, poisoned or shot in the UK. The perpetrators of these crimes are rarely brought to justice, with certain exceptions such as the shocking case of Allen Lambert who was found guilty of poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk, the carcasses of which were found at his home in Norfolk in 2014. As is common in bird crime, Lambert destroyed the birds in an attempt to protect pheasants he was rearing; areas dedicated to grouse production are also vulnerable to this type of felony.

Dead buzzards found at Allen Lamberts home in 2014

Dead buzzards found at Allen Lamberts home

Visualising latent fingerprints on food products, fabric, feathers and skin is ordinarily a challenge, but this study has now found that certain fluorescent powders give reliable results from feather and bird egg surfaces. The team from Dundee used tight-weaved flight feathers from several species to discover which of multiple powders would provide strongly visible fingerprints: red and green magnetic fluorescent powders were particularly effective for the enhancement of fingermarks on feathers, while black magnetic powder worked best on eggs. The results were strongest for buzzards, and prints that were 21 days old were just as strong as day-old marks.

Poisoned Buzzard, photo credit Keith Brockie

Poisoned Buzzard, photo credit Keith Brockie


Dr Gentles, who led the study, said “before we’ve had birds of prey found lying at the bottom of a steep mountain and wondered how they’ve got there. If they look at the bird now and fingerprint the flight feathers, they will be able to see if the bird has actually been handled.” A growing priority of the Scottish Government, this work will now enable the use of forensics in the conviction of those responsible for unforgiveable wildlife persecution.

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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