Feathered friends’ best friend leaves the lab

Dr. Pepper Trail in the lab. USFWS photo
March 9, 2022

Pepper Trail retires after cracking thousands of avian cases

By Dennis Powers for Ashland.news

Noted sleuth Pepper Trail has hung up his lab coat. This detective practiced his craft for 23 years at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland. As its chief forensic ornithologist, Trail cracked cases by identifying birds from bits of feather or bone.

The Ashland lab, unique in world as the only one devoted to crimes against wildlife, opened in 1989. Trail joined the team in 1998 and retired at the end of 2021. By then he had worked on 2,000 cases, involving over 50,000 identifications of bird remains, from 900 identified species — sometimes with only one feather or bone to work with.

Trail’s interest in his feathered friends began early life in upstate New York. “My dad was real nature guy, who was a birder, lover of the outdoors, and a photographer,” Trail said. “He would take me on nature hikes and this interest stayed with me.”

Trail’s father, Paris Trail, was a professional photographer for the New York State Department of Agriculture. He and the family just liked the name “Pepper,” so that’s how Pepper Trail got his name.

It was on a trip to Mexico that Pepper developed in interest in studying tropical birds. “When I was 12,” he explains, “my family took an epic road trip to Mexico in a Dodge camper van. When in Mexico, I first saw tropical birds from colorful macaws to tanagers. I became smitten with these birds.”

Pepper Trail while doing a field study for his doctoral research with the Guianan cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola). Photo courtesy of Pepper Trail

Ornithological education takes him far afield

While earning an education in the sciences (bachelor’s degree at Cornell, master’s at UC Davis), he continued field research, including studying acorn woodpeckers in Arizona. His interest in tropical bird species led him to work on his doctorate at Cornell University. For his doctoral research, Pepper lived in the tropical rain forests of Suriname in South America, while studying the mating habits of the Guianan cock-of-the-rock: a brilliant-orange bird the size of a large pigeon. Living in the rains and tropical heat, his “research station” was a thatched hut, a hammock, and kerosene for light and cooking.

“Tropical jungles are very humid,” Pepper recalled. “It’s hard to stay clean and you are far away from any medical help. When clearing trails to the bird nests, you had to accept the insects and snakes. From bullet ants (1-2 inches long with bad stings), ‘stingless bees’ (no stingers but bad bites) to tiny sand flies (carrying a disease causing open sores on your skin), I experienced all of them.

“Fer-de-lance and bushmaster (deadly venomous) snakes were seen at least once a month. One time, I was climbing rocks to reach a bird’s nest. I thought I saw a large ‘seed.’ When reaching over my head to the nest, I saw a forked tongue snake out towards my arm. Pulling it sharply back, I discovered a fer-de-lance coiled up in that nest.”

A post-doctoral fellowship in Panama was next, followed by eight years at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences — one of the country’s major natural history museums — to work closely with (and mentored by) the distinguished ornithologist Dr. Luis Baptista on numerous bird projects; then off to American Samoa to study the ecology and conservation of native forest birds and flying foxes.

Dr. Pepper Trail explains his initial evaluation process to a group of African delegates visiting the wildlife forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon. USFWS photo

Ashland turned out to be the right place at the right time

Pepper and his wife, Dr. Debra Koutnik, moved to Ashland in 1994 in connection with her medical career. For the next four years, he focused on parenting the couple’s two young children, while working as a contract biologist and volunteer for a variety of environmental groups.

“When a forensic ornithologist USFWS position opened up in 1998,” Pepper said, “it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

Pepper’s work as a forensic ornithologist, seeking to identify birds from fragmentary feathers, bones, beaks, talons, or other trace evidence in law enforcement cases, had its challenges.

“With most of my prior work in the field,” Pepper recalled, “now I was in a crime lab with the requirement to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my conclusions were correct. I had to identify the victims of wildlife crime when the victim was a bird.”

Dr. Trail displays some of the 11,000 catalogued bird specimens in the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland. USFWS photo

To identify thousands of feathers from different birds of prey in his first big case, Trail scoured reference specimens for the smallest detail “revealing consistent physical differences.” It was a steep learning curve, but resulted in developing the ability to identify the feathers of all the North American hawks and eagles — species important in law enforcement. The techniques in this first case were eventually applied to the identification of over 900 separate bird species.

Raptors and songbirds made up more than one-half of his case load. He learned to tell one raptor (a bird of prey, as an owl, hawk, or an eagle) from another by a feather or bone fragment. His cases included bird poisonings, trapping, smuggling, possessing and sale of feathers of protected species. The lab’s reference collection, including more than 11,000 cataloged bird specimens, was crucial for this work. Many specimens were confiscated from the global illegal trade, or sent by zoos throughout the country.

An illustrative case that Pepper described: Receiving a tip about a restaurant in New England serving wild woodcock, federal agents sent the evidence to him in a take-out container. A small piece of cooked, seasoned meat with garnish on toast was inside. Jokingly, Trail said, “How kind, someone sent me dinner.” But this was evidence, not supper.

Although these forest-dwelling sandpipers are legal to hunt, it is illegal to commercially sell their meat. Ordering woodcock from the menu and “one to go,” the agents sent the take-out. Once Pepper identified the breastbone, agents raided the restaurant, confiscated dozens of frozen woodcock, and sent these to the lab. Using his colony of dermestid beetles — insects that eat meat and skin — the bird bones were cleaned. The case met the test of “no reasonable doubt.”

The feather atlas team that built a database of more 400 species represented by nearly 1,900 scanned images of flight feathers. USFWS photo

Founder of the Feather Atlas, distinguished poet

A highlight of Trail’s career was establishing the Feather Atlas. “I started this website to help wildlife law enforcement distinguish legal (for example, turkey) feathers from illegal ones (such as an eagle),” Pepper said. “It has grown to become the top feather identification site on the web, with over 1.5 million visits a year. Following my retirement, forensic lab staff volunteers will keep it growing.”

Some 1,800 scanned images of North American flight-feathers and 400 species are now on the web. This impressive “atlas” (and see Feather Atlas of North American Birds) is used by artists, scientists, birders, and the interested public to identify what bird has what feathers.

Pepper’s retirement leaves him more time to pursue his interests. He continues to publish scientific papers, take exotic trips, write poetry, and pursue his conservation activities. His poems have been published in Windfall, Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, KyotoJournal and other publications. He won the Oregon Peace Poetry Prize in 2005 and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in Poetry in 2016.

That’s not all.

“I am very involved with regional and international conservation issues,” Pepper said in early February, “including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument expansion and the complicated Klamath water dispute (farmers/salmon/Native Americans). I’m heading to Suriname in mid-February to lead Fish and Wildlife training sessions that focus on jaguars. Chinese companies that traded in crushed tiger bones for medicinal use, now are after jaguars and lions, as the tiger population has been so depleted.”

Pepper also leads natural history trips around the world. In February 2020, he traveled to the Seychelles, remote islands in the Indian Ocean, and snorkeled on coral reefs with huge groupers, a rare fish. Two other trips were cancelled due to COVID-19, but he will return to expedition travel with three trips in 2022, including one to the Galapagos with the Smithsonian in May.

Pepper may have been very successful at his work, but seems to not be doing so well at being retired.

Sources: Pepper Trail, interviews with author, February 2022; Susan Sawyer, “Pepper Trail, forensic ornithologist,” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region, Sept. 25, 2019); USFWS Library, Dec 2, 2020, “FWS Scholar: Pepper Trail.” Retired Southern Oregon University business law professor Dennis Powers, a historian and author of 25 books, has lived in Ashland for some 30 years. Email him at dennis@dennispowersbooks.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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