Feathers of most native birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
UPDATE January 2021: The Trump administration has released an 11th-hour partial roll-back of protections on migratory birds, but they seem to apply only to corporate and industrial organizations who can claim that the harm to birds was accidental
Read articles about the modification to the protections here:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Finalizes Regulation Clarifying the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Implementation”
Audubon: “Trump to Birds: Drop Dead”
Here’s a new one to me — I just learned it’s illegal to possess or sell most bird feathers in the US because most native birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This means the birds are protected, of course, but it also means you can’t even pick up and keep their feathers, nests, or eggs from your back yard or local park. While it may seem like overreach, it’s part of an effort to protect the birds from commercial exploitation.
Apparently the feathers of certain domesticated species like chickens and turkeys are not protected, while eagles, hawks, jays, vultures, crows, ravens, and most other common native species are definitely protected. Some non-native species are also not protected — starlings, peacocks, and some kinds of sparrows and finches for example.
You may ask yourself about the likelihood of enforcement on this, but hefty fines can result from violations.
Note: While this applies to the U.S., many other nations have similar laws.
Fish and Wildlife Service: ‘Feathers are Protected’
In case you’re still doubtful, there’s a statement on this page from the Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab that says in plain language, “Important Reminder: Feathers are Protected.” That statement contains a link to the official statements copied-and-pasted below:
“Feathers are beautiful and remarkable objects. If you find feathers in nature, please appreciate, study, photograph them, and leave them where you found them. Under federal law, it is illegal to take them home.”
Another page from the Feather Atlas adds further emphasis:
“The possession of feathers and other parts of native North American birds without a permit is prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). This protects wild birds by preventing their killing by collectors and the commercial trade in their feathers, and extends to all feathers, regardless of how they were obtained. There is no exemption for molted feathers or those taken from road- or window-killed birds. More information on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the list of MBTA-protected species can be found here.
Exceptions do exist for the feathers of legally-hunted waterfowl or other migratory gamebirds, and for the use of feathers by Native Americans. For more information, see the FAQ page.
Individuals or institutions wishing to use bird feathers, bones, or whole specimens for educational or research purposes must apply for permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their state wildlife or natural resource agency. See here.
DISCLAIMER: Identifications based of the Feather atlas cannot be considered definitive unless confirmed by a qualified expert.” ( Fish and Wildlife Service Feather Atlas “Feathers and the Law” )
Bird nests and egg shell fragments are also protected
In line with the protection of feathers, it’s also illegal to possess bird’s nests, eggs, or egg shell fragments, even if found on the ground.
I devoted a podcast episode to this topic
I’m certainly no expert on this, so don’t take any of my statements in this blog post as legal advice. The safest bet is to follow the admonition of the FWS and simply leave feathers where you find them. That’s what I’ll be doing from now on. Below are a couple of official sources for you to find more details.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Migratory Bird Treaty Act Protected Species List
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The Feather Atlas
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Feathers and the Law
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: FAQs
Thanks for reading.