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To pluck or not to pluck: the hidden ethical and scientific costs of relying on feathers as a primary source of DNA


  • Paul G. McDonald,

  • Simon C. Griffith

P. G. McDonald ( and S. C. Griffith, School of Biol. Sci., Macquarie Univ., Sydney, Armidale, Australia 2109. – P. G. McDonald also at: Behav. and Physiol. Ecol. Res. Centre, Zool., School of Environm. and Rural Sci., Univ. of New England, Armidale, Australia 2351.


This article responds to the recent prominence of ornithological literature advocating the plucking or clipping of feathers to obtain DNA in avian studies. We argue that the practise of feather plucking or clipping should be strongly discouraged on both scientific and ethical grounds in the avian literature. Currently, despite claims to the contrary, it is not clear that feather sampling as a source of DNA has lower ethical impacts on birds than blood sampling. In addition, feather samples provide a smaller and less reliable biological resource, significantly jeopardising the short and long-term outcomes that can be gained by the sampling. In contrast, blood collection has been experimentally demonstrated to be relatively safe, subject to operators being skilled and following published guidelines, providing large yields of high quality DNA that facilitates archival storage of samples in a manner that the destructive sampling of feathers cannot.