"Excuse me?" came the voice from the opposite side of the railing. It was high-pitched and barely audible, exactly what you would expect for a five year old girl. Which, of course, is what I found myself face to face with when I turned around.
"Can I have a feather?" she asked, pointing to the mound of dirt, leaf litter, pine needles, feces, and, yes, a few scraggly pink feathers at my feet. It was a pretty typical haul of cleaning up after our American flamingo flock.
"Oh, honey, I don't think you want any of these. They're all icky," I replied, gesturing towards the pile, flies buzzing all around it. Five seconds later of looking at that face, I was rummaging around in the bushes until I found a clean feather.
I didn't hand it to the little girl, though. I gave it to her mother - with strict instructions to keep it in her purse or pocket until she got home. It wouldn't do to advertise that we had a 100% sale on flamingo feathers, and the last thing I needed was to be besieged by kids (and adults - there is one regular visitor we have who uses them to make fishing flies) demanding feathers or, worse, climbing the fence to get them. It was also for that reason that I only gave a feather to a single, lone child. If she'd been part of a field trip, or a birthday party - well, pretty soon we'd have either some crying kids or some clean-plucked flamingos.
I'm not really sure why visitors want feathers so often. The requests tend to swirl around flamingos, parrots, and, most long-suffering of all, our free-ranging peafowl, who sometimes find themselves being chased down by mobs seeking a tail feather (I, in turn, end up chasing the mobs). I wonder, do the recipients take them home and treasure them, a souvenir of a special day that they recall for years to come? Or do they stuff it in a pocket, which then goes into the washing machine and disintegrates?
For zoo staff, the answer is clear. Many keepers I know collect feathers, some of them coming up with especially creative ways to arrange them and display them. From what I've observed, it's most common among newbies in the field, this drive to collect (feathers, porcupine quills, snake sheds, you name it). The more time you spend on the job, the more you realize - there will always be more feathers. Most of them needing to be cleaned up, often.
There are some keepers who do not like giving away feathers, maybe because it's a hassle, or they know they don't have enough for everyone, or they don't like the message it sends. Some worry about disease transmission - another excellent reason to give the feathers to adults, who tend to be better (not always) about not putting things in their mouths.
When dispensing feathers, it's always important to remind oneself about legality issues. Many native birds - especially raptors - are protected by federal law, and that includes their feathers. Bald and golden eagles have especially strict requirements governing their feathers - when zoo eagles die, their entire carcasses are often sent to special depositories, where their feathers, talons, and other body parts can be used for Native American ceremonial purposes. And it's never okay to remove feathers from a bird's body for anything other than medical or husbandry purposes (such as pulling a blood feather to obtain a DNA sample) - never just to snag a keepsake.
As long as the laws are obeyed and no animals are being harmed, however, I have no objection to sending a little kid (or sometimes a big one) home with a macaw feather, or a peacock tail feather, sometimes taller than they are. It doesn't hurt the zoo any to dispose of some - we do have a constantly replenishing supply, after all. Most kids will loose theirs, or toss it away, or forget about. For others, however, it could be a reminder of a wonderful experience, a day spent in the presence of extraordinary birds (to the extent that there are ordinary birds). It might just be one of those small moments which changes a child's life for the better.