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Interview: Pepper Trail, Bird Detective
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Money worth finding; hermit crab house swap; jellyfish delicacies; more.

Heath Korvola

Bird Detective
A federal forensic ornithologist cracks avian mysteries.

Pepper Trail’s job is like CSI for birds. The ornithologist works alongside a team of geneticists, chemists, and firearms experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon, to identify the avian victims of wildlife crimes. Trail (above) is one of the few people in the world who analyzes bird remains to crack down on illicit activities—from poaching to contraband pesticide use to illegal wildlife trading. Bones, feathers, and other samples gathered by federal wildlife agents in the field help him determine if laws like the Endangered Species Act or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act have been violated.

What’s an exotic species you’ve identified?
The helmeted hornbill from Indonesia. The males have a growth on their beaks made of solid keratin that acts as a shock absorber when they bash heads during courtship rituals. It’s prized as a carving material and, these days, is often made into fancy cocaine bottles. At the lab, we get these bottles and have to determine if they are genuine hornbill keratin or fakes, made from plastic or perhaps cow horn.

Have you ever identified a bird with just one feather?
Yes, but not a tiny body feather. If the feathers are part of, say, a Brazilian headdress, they are usually tail or wing feathers.

You once had a case involving Guyanese songbirds?
They were being smuggled into the country for singing contests, which may sound harmless, but many of the birds died in transit. They put these birds in hair curlers, which held them immobile but exposed them to heat and stress.

Many of the birds you identify have been caught in oil pits. What are those?
Oil pits are manmade ponds filled with by-products of the drilling process. They’re supposed to be rendered inaccessible to wildlife, but that doesn’t always happen. Birds—many of which are migratory and protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—see them as potential water and feeding sources, become stuck, and die. The specimens I get are pretty grim; typically the birds are completely soaked in oil or encased in blocks of tar.

Any particularly memorable pieces of evidence?
Once our New England agents got a tip that a restaurant was serving woodcock, a game bird that’s illegal to sell in restaurants. So the agents ordered takeout and sent me the evidence in the mail: a clamshell takeout container with a piece of breast meat inside it on some soggy toast. Through my identification of the breastbone, the agents got a search warrant and discovered they were serving not just woodcock but two species of dove that were also protected.
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