Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Yes, it’s illegal to collect the feathers of native birds, even if you just found them on the ground. The law says that you are not allowed to collect feathers.
The technical reason is that native birds and their parts are covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The act is one of our most important wildlife protection laws, put in place around the turn of the 20th century in part to help stop the rampant hunting of egrets, whose feathers were used to decorate hats.
The act makes it unlawful to hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell migratory birds, and includes a list of more than 800 covered species. The statute extends to any bird part, including feathers, eggs, and nests.
(Not all Maine birds, however, are covered. Non-native species – some of our most common birds – are not extended protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So, in theory, the feathers of the European starling, house sparrow, rock pigeons, and others are free game. Wild turkeys and other game birds are not covered either, though they are protected under various other laws and hunting seasons.)
The law has had all kinds of ramifications. Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and seen a bird on screen, but noticed that the bird wasn’t a species native to the United States? No? Maybe just me. Anyway, this happens all the time, where some insane, non-native bird will show up in the background of some movie set in the U.S. I start swearing in the theater but no one understands why.
But there’s a reason these birds are always wrong: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the capture of migratory birds, and that means capture for use as actors. If you look at listings of companies that provide live animals for film shoots, all the birds are from species native to somewhere else.
Anyway, feathers and other bird parts are included in the law because it’s too easy to otherwise claim you just found them. If someone is out there trafficking in bird feathers (I can’t imagine it would be a lucrative business) and the cops bust in and find the guy with a table full of feathers (what’s he doing with them, making bouquets?), it would be an easy loophole for the guy just to say “I didn’t kill any birds, I just found all these feathers.”
So, the act penalizes possession, meaning that even keeping a feather you find on the ground is against the letter of the law.
I am by no means encouraging any law-breaking, scofflaws, delinquency, or any other extra-legal behavior, but practically speaking, you’re not going to jail if you pick up a feather. You’re just not. The police have many more important things to think about than where you got that feather. There’s no need to lose sleep if your child brings a feather home from the woods, and you don’t need to sneak out at night to dispose of any molted remnants under your bird feeder.
So, yeah, don’t kill birds, don’t harass them, don’t capture them, don’t sell them, and don’t hunt them (unless specifically permitted by the state). Don’t hang onto their feathers, either. But also, don’t worry too much about hanging onto a feather or two.
Sorry about your feather bouquet business; you’ll have to try your hand at something else.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.