Updated: Aug 18, 2020
The feather fanatics are always on patrol... and they will correct you.
I get it. Having one of those lazuli-colored feathers from this Lazuli Bunting would be a wonderful conversation piece. However, keeping that crackin' plumage could land you in a heap of trouble. Why? Read on, dear bird-lovers.
Oh, and notice the title does not say "Can I keep bird feathers?" Birds are the only living organisms that possess feathers.
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Is it legal to keep bird feathers?
The simple answer is NO. However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as non-native species, domestic species, gamebirds collected with a hunting license, and other species not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).
What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service:
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (16 U.S.C. 703–712, MBTA) implements four international conservation treaties that the U.S. entered into with Canada in 1916 (446.6KB), Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1972, and Russia in 1976. It is intended to ensure the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species.
The law has been amended with the signing of each treaty, as well as when any of the treaties were amended, such as with Mexico in 1976 and Canada in 1995.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Essentially, this law was enacted to prevent the extermination of several native species of birds that were being hunted to extinction by feather and meat collectors. Without this key piece of legislature, it is likely that you would never have had the opportunity to see Snowy Egrets, Wood Ducks, and Sandhill Cranes in North America. And I'm only naming a few.
Why can't I keep feathers?
The possession of feathers and other parts of native North American birds without a permit is prohibited by the MBTA. This protects wild birds and their populations by preventing their killing by collectors and the commercial trade industry. This extends to all feathers, regardless of how they were obtained. Since it would be difficult, or impossible, to prove how you obtained the feather, you simply are not allowed to have them.
There is no exemption for molted feathers or those taken from road- or window-killed birds or deaths from natural causes.
Unfortunately, that is the end of the story. No feathers. Except:
Exceptions do exist for the feathers of legally-hunted waterfowl or other migratory gamebirds, and for the use of feathers by Native Americans. - USFWS
There is also one additional major exception. The MBTA applies only to migratory bird species that are native to North America, and that a native migratory bird species is one that is present as a result of natural biological or ecological processes. Nonnative, human-introduced species, are exempt from feather collection and harvest. If you want feathers for art or fly fishing but are not confident in your identification abilities, buy feathers from domestic collections from Amazon.
Which bird species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
The list for protected species is quite large. However, you can use these simples rules from USFWS to determine if a species is protected. However, you do not want to make an incorrect assumption.
A migratory bird species is included on the list if it meets one or more of the following criteria:
It occurs in the United States or U.S. territories as the result of natural biological or ecological processes and is currently, or was previously listed as, a species or part of a family protected by one of the four international treaties or their amendments.
Revised taxonomy results in it being newly split from a species that was previously on the list, and the new species occurs in the United States or U.S. territories as the result of natural biological or ecological processes.
New evidence exists for its natural occurrence in the United States or U.S. territories resulting from natural distributional changes and the species occurs in a protected family.
If you want to see the full list, you can read it here.
Which birds can I keep the feathers from?
The species found below are considered nonnatives and are NOT protected by the MBTA. However, just because a bird is on this list, does not necessarily allow for indiscriminate killing. Check your local and state regulations for additional questions.
The list is organized by family:
Ducks, Geese, & Swans
Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata
Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca
Philippine Duck, Anas luzonica
Graylag Goose, Anser anser
Domestic Goose, Anser anser `domesticus'
Swan Goose, Anser cygnoides
Bar-headed Goose, Anser indicus
Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis
Ringed Teal, Callonetta leucophrys
Maned Duck, Chenonetta jubata
Coscoroba Swan, Coscoroba coscoroba
Black Swan, Cygnus atratus
Black-necked Swan, Cygnus melancoryphus
Mute Swan, Cygnus olor
White-faced Whistling-Duck, Dendrocygna viduata
Rosy-billed Pochard, Netta peposaca
Red-crested Pochard, Netta rufina
Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Nettapus coromandelianus
Orinoco Goose, Oressochen jubatus (Neochen jubata)
Hottentot Teal, Spatula hottentota
Ruddy Shelduck, Tadorna ferruginea
Common Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Lesser Flamingo, Phoeniconaias minor
Chilean Flamingo, Phoenicopterus chilensis
Pigeons & Doves
Nicobar Pigeon, Caloenas nicobarica
Asian Emerald Dove, Chalcophaps indica
Rock Pigeon, Columba livia
Common Wood-Pigeon, Columba palumbus
Luzon Bleeding-heart, Gallicolumba luzonica
Diamond Dove, Geopelia cuneata
Bar-shouldered Dove, Geopelia humeralis
Zebra Dove, Geopelia striata
Spinifex Pigeon, Geophaps plumifera
Partridge Pigeon, Geophaps smithii
Wonga Pigeon, Leucosarcia melanoleuca
Crested Pigeon, Ocyphaps lophotes
Common Bronzewing, Phaps chalcoptera
Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Starnoenas cyanocephala
Island Collared-Dove, Streptopelia bitorquata
Spotted Dove, Streptopelia chinensis
Eurasian Collared-Dove, Streptopelia decaocto
African Collared-Dove, Streptopelia roseogrisea
Black-throated Mango, Anthracothorax nigricollis
Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Aramides cajaneus
Demoiselle Crane, Anthropoides virgo
Sarus Crane, Antigone antigone
Black Crowned-Crane, Balearica pavonina
Gray Crowned-Crane, Balearica regulorum
Plovers & Lapwings
Southern Lapwing, Vanellus chilensis
Spur-winged Lapwing, Vanellus spinosus
Silver Gull, Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Abdim's Stork, Ciconia abdimii
White Stork, Ciconia ciconia
Woolly-necked Stork, Ciconia episcopus
Black-necked Stork, Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus
Red-legged Cormorant, Phalacrocorax gaimardi
Anhingas & Darters
Oriental Darter, Anhinga melanogaster
Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus
Pink-backed Pelican, Pelecanus rufescens
Ibises & Spoonbills
Eurasian Spoonbill, Platalea leucorodia
Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus
King Vulture, Sarcoramphus papa
Variable Hawk, Geranoaetus polyosoma
Griffon-type Old World vulture, Gyps sp.
Bateleur, Terathopius ecaudatus
Spectacled Owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata
Crows, Ravens, Magpies, & Jays
Black-throated Magpie-Jay, Calocitta colliei
White-necked Raven, Corvus albicollis
Carrion Crow, Corvus corone
Cuban Crow, Corvus nasicus
House Crow, Corvus splendens
Azure Jay, Cyanocorax caeruleus
San Blas Jay, Cyanocorax sanblasianus
Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda
Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius
Red-billed Chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Red-billed Blue-Magpie, Urocissa erythroryncha
Japanese Skylark, Alauda japonica Start Printed Page 21264
Wood Lark, Lullula arborea
Calandra Lark, Melanocorypha calandra
Mongolian Lark, Melanocorypha mongolica
Tits & Chickadees
Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus
Great Tit, Parus major
Varied Tit, Sittiparus varius
White-throated Dipper, Cinclus cinclus
Typical Warblers (Old World Warblers)
Eurasian Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla
Old World Flycatchers
Indian Robin, Copsychus fulicatus
White-rumped Shama, Copsychus malabaricus
Oriental Magpie-Robin, Copsychus saularis
European Robin, Erithacus rubecula
Japanese Robin, Larvivora akahige
Ryukyu Robin, Larvivora komadori
Common Nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos
Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos
Red-throated Thrush, Turdus ruficollis
Dunnock, Prunella modularis
European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis
European Greenfinch, Chloris chloris
White-rumped Seedeater, Crithagra leucopygia
Yellow-fronted Canary, Crithagra mozambica
Eurasian Linnet, Linaria cannabina
Parrot Crossbill, Loxia pytyopsittacus
Island Canary, Serinus canaria
Red Siskin, Spinus cucullatus
Hooded Siskin, Spinus magellanicus
New World Sparrows
Yellowhammer, Emberiza citrinella
Blackbirds, Meadowlarks & Orioles
Venezuelan Troupial, Icterus icterus
Spot-breasted Oriole, Icterus pectoralis
Montezuma Oropendola, Psarocolius montezuma
Red-breasted Meadowlark, Sturnella militaris
Cardinals & Buntings
Orange-breasted Bunting, Passerina leclancherii
Red-hooded Tanager, Piranga rubriceps
Yellow Cardinal, Gubernatrix cristata
Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Loxigilla violacea
Cuban Bullfinch, Melopyrrha nigra
Yellow-billed Cardinal, Paroaria capitata
Red-crested Cardinal, Paroaria coronata
Red-cowled Cardinal, Paroaria dominicana
Red-capped Cardinal, Paroaria gularis
Saffron Finch, Sicalis flaveola
Blue-gray Tanager, Thraupis episcopus
Cuban Grassquit, Tiaris canorus
How to Identify Feathers
So, you found a feather. You cannot keep it, but you want to identify the bird that left it. Here are some tips to capture the memory and enough information to identify the original owner:
Take a photo - A photo allows you to save the memory and moment you found the feather, without keeping it.
Take measurements - If you can take photos, do so with a measurement tool next to the feather. Otherwise, use common objects that have a consistent size (like a coin).
Use the Feather Atlas - The 'Feather Atlas' is a tool provided by USFWS to aid in the identification of feathers.
Capture those amazing moments in nature
Yeah, not being able to keep birds or bird feathers is disappointing. However, humans have developed a tool to capture moments in time. The camera. Leave the feather and take the memory by using your camera. Want an affordable camera for capturing those 'nature moments?' Check out our post on cameras!