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Can I keep feathers? - The laws protecting birds (and their feathers)

The feather fanatics are always on patrol... and they will correct you.

Adult Male Lazuli Bunting
Adult Male Lazuli Bunting

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.

Before we get rolling, let me drop one of my favorite GIF's, which will help you trust me even more:

(If you cannot see this bird law GIF, click here to view it elsewhere.)

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). Keeping feathers is illegal but appreciating feathers is not. Want more details on keeping feathers? Keep reading!

But first...


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Want legal feathers? Peruse through these 'natural' feathers.


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 legislation, 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 car- 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 Migratory Bird Treaty Act applies only to migratory bird species that are native to North America, and 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.

Have a question about certain feathers? Here are the most commonly asked questions:

Can I keep peacock feathers?

Yes, Indian Peafowl, also known as peacocks, shed feathers that can be kept. They are not a native species, so their feathers have no protections.

Can I keep eagle feathers?

Eagle feathers have the highest protection. Eagle feathers may only be held by federal officials, members of indigenous tribes, and raptor rehabilitation centers.

Can I keep hawk or owl feathers?

Native hawk and owl feathers cannot be held without special permits.

Can I keep turkey feathers?

Most states require either turkey hunting permits or other special permits to hold Wild Turkey feathers.


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Which bird species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?

The list of protected species is quite large. However, you can use these simple 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Hummingbirds, like this male Broad-tailed Hummingbird, are protected by the MBTA.
Hummingbirds, like this male Broad-tailed Hummingbird, are protected by the MBTA.

Want more hummingbirds in your yard? Grab the Juegoal 12 oz Hummingbird Feeder!


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. Below are some tips to capture the memory and enough information to identify the original owner. But first, a quick recommendation on a great feather guide:


If you want a physical guide to identifying feathers, this is what we use: Bird Feathers

  1. Take a photo - A photo allows you to save the memory and moment you found the feather without keeping it.

  2. 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).

  3. Use the Feather Atlas - The 'Feather Atlas' is a tool provided by USFWS to aid in the identification of feathers.

Feather Atlas feather scan
Feather Atlas feather scan

Are birds and feathers still illegally harvested and trafficked?

It may seem unbelievable, but yes, even as humankind progresses late into the 21st century, bird and feather trafficking still occurs at an alarming rate. While you might think North America is certainly insulated from these heinous wildlife infractions, you would be wrong. Native migratory birds are poached and/or trafficked into North America at a near-daily rate, then used for decoration, pet trade, feather trade, and sometimes even in fishing lures. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service describes illicit wildlife trade as a worldwide issue resulting in "transactions each year worth billions of dollars," and the State Department further acknowledges this issue listing birds with between two and five million individuals being trafficked annually. The keeping of a feather from a native bird might seem like a silly infraction, but without knowledge of a feather's origins, wildlife officials are hard-pressed to determine whose intent is harmful to birds.

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. This protects you and birds while offering an amazing experience to any who follow after you.

Want an affordable camera for capturing those 'nature moments?' Check out our post on cameras!


Want more tips on birds, feeding birds, identifying birds, wildlife safety, and more?? Join our site, join us on Flocking YouTube, like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, and Twitter, and visit our Amazon Storefront.


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