Picking a Feather off the Ground May Get You Jail Time
Migratory Bird Treaty Act Makes Collecting Bird Feathers Illegal, the Feather Atlas from USFWS Can Help
Often times when leading hikes I see visitors in my programs pick up bird feathers and want to know if they can take them home. I have to answer that by law, it's illegal. Most people are shocked to find out that picking up bird feathers, moving bird nests, or taking carcasses for stuffing is illegal. This is because of something called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to protect birds that migrated between Canada and the US (with Great Britain as the intermediary). The act was modified in 1996 but is pretty much the same, only now it includes the countries of the US, Mexico, Japan, and Russia.
This act made it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, kill, possess, offer for sale, ship, purchase, capture, or deliver NATIVE migratory birds without a proper permit from the USFWS. Notably, this act does not differentiate between live and dead birds, which means that eggs, nests, found feathers, carcasses, and all bird parts are covered. The only exception to this act is the Eagle Feather Law, which allows the collection of golden and bald eagle feathers, nests, and eggs for scientific purposes or for religious purposes, as in the case of Native Americans. However, organizations must be enrolled and Native Americans must be a member of a federally recognized tribe. There have also been some exceptions granted to federal agencies and private groups for the killing of nuisance birds such as Canada geese and sparrows.
The birds protected in The Migratory Bird Treaty Act are listed in 50 CFR 10.13. You can find the complete list in PDF form on the US Fish and Wildlife Service page. An additional announcement in 2005 listed all of the non-native species of birds, introduced into the US which do receive protection under this act. For full list of invasives not covered visit the USFWS website. You'll see such birds as the Mandrin Duck, Oriental Darter, Red-legged Cormorant, Oriental Magpie-Robin, the Cuban Bullfinch, and the European Goldfinch.
Are There Any Native Bird Species It's Ok to Have Feathers From?
Yes, there are quite a few native bird species (that don't migrate) whose feathers that you own or find you can have legally. Some of the more common are:
- Most Pigeons
- Ruffed Grouse
- Eurasian Collared-dove
- House sparrow
- Mute Swan
- Greater Prairie-Chicken
- House Crow
The feathers that you purchase at a craft store are most often one of these types of birds listed above, and they're perfectly legal to possess. For a more comprehensive list of the feathers that are ILLEGAL to possess check out this document from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. You can cross reference what you find to be sure that you're OK to use feathers that you purchase.
How Can I (or The Fish and Wildlife Officers) Know if My Feather is Illegal?
Even some of the most experience birders can't tell you specifically what bird single feather comes from, so the Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory has created an online tool for their officers and the general public to use. This website is called the Feather Atlas. It provides high resolution scans of the primary flight feathers of the migratory birds of North America. If you've found feathers, then this is the place to start, to see if what you've got might be illegal.
You start on their home page by identifying the patterns and color of your feathers:
Next they will narrow down your selection to a variety of birds, and you scroll through to find the feathers that most closely matches what you have:
They will give you a variety of images to choose from, including primary, secondary, and tail feathers (the most commonly found feathers).
Next you click on the type of feather you think you have and they'll give you the full specs (measurements) of the feathers and you can use the zoom tool to look at high resolution images of the feathers to help you confirm the id. You'll also find pictures of the specific bird whose feathers you're looking at, on this page, to help you look at the "larger picture" of where the feathers might have come from.
This tool is particularly useful if you're a curious birder, naturalist, or teacher. It can be used in classrooms or in the field. Remember, don't just pick up feathers off the ground. Know what is and is not legal to take home. As a rule, it's best to just leave them on the ground!
If You Do Find Legal Feathers
If you find legal feathers (such as turkey or quail) be sure to freeze them when you get home to kill any parasites that they may have. It's good to keep them in cedar lined boxes or closets too.
If You'd Like To Know More
If you're old school or would like something more analog that you can take into the field, try the "Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species" field guide by David Scott. It comes in paper and Kindle format too.
You can now use the feather database called "Featherbase" for feather identification too. It's in German, but you can also find the names alphabetized so no worries. Many species overlap those in North America. Here's a link: https://www.featherbase.info/en/home.