Researchers at Abertay University, based in Dundee, have established which fingerprint powders are most effective at developing fingermarks on the feathers and eggs of birds of prey.
The discovery means that police can establish whether a bird or egg has been handled by a human.
It is hoped the research findings will help crack down on wildlife crime, which is on the rise with 2,578 incidents of bird crime involving or targeting wild birds of prey reported to the RSPB since 2006.
Dennis Gentles, a former scenes of crime officer and forensic scientist who is now a lecturer in forensic science at Abertay University, said: “There are some surfaces where recovering fingerprints remains elusive - human and animal skin, for example. And, until now, feathers were on that list.
“We had heard anecdotally that it had been achieved and were keen to see if we could develop a method that produced consistent results and could be used by the police in an investigation.”
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He added: “Now, if the police examine a discarded bird of prey for fingerprints following our guidelines, any fingermarks that have been left there will become visible.
“If a fingermark shows up, it is proof that the bird has been handled and suggests that it was discarded on someone else’s land as the perpetrator tried to get rid of the carcass.
“Even if they don’t manage to recover an identifiable fingermark, the presence of the mark means that they know exactly where to focus their attention to swab for DNA and that this particular bird of prey had been handled by a human.
“So, we hope that this research will help the police in their endeavours to bring those guilty of wildlife crime to justice.
“They will now be able to recover more evidence - and it will be evidence that could potentially link a suspect to the crime.”
Birds of prey
Six species of bird of prey feathers (kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard, red kite, golden eagle and white-tailed eagle) and seven species of bird of prey eggs (kestrel, sparrowhawk, golden eagle, goshawk, tawny owl, barn owl and long-eared owl) were examined in the research.
Previously it had not been established which of the many different fingerprint powders available would work and there was always a risk of damaging the evidence.
The results of the latest research showed that red and green magnetic fluorescent powders were the most successful at recovering fingerprints from feathers.
Black magnetic powder was the most successful at recovering fingermarks from eggs.
Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, welcomed the research.
He said: “Since 1994, almost 750 protected birds of prey have been confirmed as being the victims of illegal poisoning, shooting or trapping in Scotland.
“This has included some of our rarest breeding species like golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites whose populations continue to be threatened by illegal killing.
“While government laboratory testing has made it relatively straightforward to identify the cause of death of the victims in many cases, identifying the perpetrator of offences that often take place in some of the remotest areas of our countryside continues to be very difficult.
“Although there has been a reduction in the number of cases of illegal egg collection, the practice still exists and there is evidence that illegal egg collectors are now increasingly operating abroad.
“This work carried out by Abertay University is a great step forward in the development of forensic techniques and can only assist in the fight against those who threaten some of our most iconic raptors.”
Full details of the methods used have been recorded in a research paper, which has been published in the journal Science & Justice and is available online.
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