SUMMARY How animals cope with stressors is an important determinant of their well being and fitness. Understanding what environmental perturbations are perceived as stressors, and quantifying how they are responded to, how often they occur and the negative consequences of exposure to glucocorticoids, has been problematic and limited to short-term physiological measures. By contrast, the quantification of corticosterone (CORT) in feathers represents a long-term, integrated measure of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal activity. In the present study, we show that by understanding how the hormone is deposited in feathers, in combination with specific sampling protocols, one can identify localised patterns of CORT deposition that reveal different temporal patterns of a bird's response to stressors. CORT in feathers appears to be stable over time, is resistant to heat exposure and is useful in determining both the overall exposure of the bird to the hormone over days or weeks, as well as identifying discrete, punctuated, stressful events. Variation in feather CORT can also be examined among individuals of a population at one point in time, as well as over years by using museum specimens. The ability to track stress over time allows for new questions to be asked about the health and ecology of birds and their environment.