Photograph by TOM FOWLKS
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Forensic ornithologist Pepper Trail at his Ashland, Oregon-based lab
Photograph by TOM FOWLKS

This Scientist Fights Crimes—Against Birds

Meet one of the few forensic ornithologists in the world.

This story appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“I identify the victims of wildlife crime—if the victim is a bird.” That’s how forensic ornithologist Pepper Trail summarizes his job. The position is so rare that he’s one of just two people in the United States to hold it.

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Hummingbirds are killed—possibly by slingshot—and sold in some markets as good luck charms for young lovers.

The work is inherently macabre. First Trail picks through the evidence—bagged bones and feathers, or even whole carcasses, that wildlife law enforcement agents send him from the field. Next he performs an analysis. Sometimes he recognizes the species right away; if he doesn’t, he conducts a prolonged examination that involves building a theory from details such as size and plumage pattern. Once Trail has identified the species, his job is usually done. His colleagues—scientists who, like Trail, are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff—will study the victim further if needed, to isolate DNA or determine cause of death.

Often the birds have been shot or snared in traps. Some have perished while being smuggled across the border in the caged-bird trade. Others are killed and made into accessories or talismans; Trail has long been tracking what in Mexico are called chuparosas, dried hummingbirds marketed as love charms.

Trail has to be objective in the roughly 100 avian crime cases he handles a year, though sometimes he gets emotional. Knowing an animal has “died horribly” is not easy to accept, he says. “But I get satisfaction when I’m able to draw attention to an issue, like the chuparosas.”