Conservation Topics: Why Your Bird Feather Collection Might Be Illegal

Currently on display at the Bruce Museum is the National Geographic Photo Ark exhibit, a show that highlights the importance of conservation using intimate portraits of zoo animals. Bird conservation is a subject that has a long history in the United States, and this year we have reached an important milestone: The hundred year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

When it was enacted, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal to own or sell feathers, bones, or egg shells from migratory bird species native to the United States. If you’ve ever picked up a beautiful blue robin eggshell and kept it on your desk, or used it in an art project, technically you’re breaking the law.

Why do we have such stringent laws protecting native birds?

There was a time when coveting feathers almost destroyed the bird populations of North America, and for now, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is the only thing preventing it from happening again.

When the first Europeans arrived in America, its natural resources seemed limitless. The Great Plains were home to millions of buffalo. There were as many as 5 billion passenger pigeons, which would literally darken the sky with rivers of birds during their annual migrations. Thinking that these natural resources were inexhaustible, hunters slaughtered with abandon.

On September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in captivity. This species went from the billions to zero and shocked a nation not used to having restrictions on hunting. Many other bird species in the same time period were also experiencing steep declines. Some were caused by demand for cheap and abundant meat, but others were driven by another engine: Fashion.

Near the end of the 1800s, feathers were all the rage in women’s fashion. Women wore anything from individual feathers to entire taxidermy birds on their hats or hairpieces. Some birds, like the snowy egret with its stunning wispy mating feathers, were especially high in demand and hunted relentlessly.  Colonies of hundreds of birds could be destroyed by feather hunters in a matter of days. Modern calculations suggest that over 100,000 egrets were killed in a single year to supply the feather fashion trade.

Many other bird species faced similar harvests and population declines. Fashion wasn’t the only thing they had to worry about, either. Many museums and personal collectors were aggressively hunting birds to fill their collections with rare or beautiful specimens. Tragically, when a species became rarer due to overhunting, that was when the collectors would truly descend. Scientific collectors hoping to snatch one last rare specimen before extinction might actually be the cause of that extinction. This was the case with the penguin-like great auk, the final colony of 50 birds killed by collectors on behalf of museums hungry for one last specimen.

Snowy egrets in breeding plumage.

Snowy egrets in breeding plumage.

In the midst of this bird carnage, the tides of opinion slowly began to turn. Feather-free hats began to pop up as ethical alternatives. Some celebrities would refuse to sign autographs until their supporters swore to stop wearing feathers. Other activists began to encourage bird watching as a way to enjoy their grace and beauty without need for death.

As public interest in bird conservation began to increase, some states passed laws protecting birds. It was in 1918 that a powerful federal law was passed to save the birds of the United States, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

According to this statute, it became unlawful to hunt, capture, kill, or sell any part of migratory birds without permit. People could no longer sell whole birds, but also couldn’t sell their feathers, eggs, or nests. The law didn’t discriminate between live or dead birds, so even if a feather or egg was shed naturally, they were illegal for possession or sale. In 2004, the law was further expanded to include all native bird species in the United States.

Are you an outlaw if you have a bird feather collection?

According to the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, it is illegal to own native bird feathers or bits of egg shells, even if you found them in your yard. Technically, a child with a collection of colorful cardinal and blue jay feathers would indeed be considered a lawbreaker. This sounds fairly draconian on the surface, but the sad reality is that outlawing casual feather collecting is a necessary casualty of protecting birds. The history of the ivory trade in the United States shows what can happen with permissive wildlife trade laws.

In 1989, the sale of ivory was banned in the United States, with the exception of antique ivory that was in the country before the ban was implemented. As it turns out, this was a critical loophole. Fresh ivory was still imported and sold at a great volume, the only difference was now the sellers had to find ways to portray the ivory as older than it was. Elephants were still being slaughtered to supply the United States ivory market.

Over the years, officials saw this leakage happening and successive laws were passed tightening the regulation around the sale of ivory. Current laws state ivory sold must be at least 100 years old or contain less than 200 grams of ivory. Still, ivory endlessly leaks through under the dubious pretense of being antique, leading some states to ban the sale of any ivory whatsoever in an attempt to stop the bloody harvest.

If people were allowed to collect and sell bird feathers that were shed naturally, it’s a fair bet that something similar would occur. After all, if a hunter shot and killed a hawk and then plucked the feathers, how could you tell that he hadn’t just found the feathers on the ground? If a poacher went around pulling nests from trees, there’d be little difference between those and a nest someone might find after it tumbled to the ground on its own.

It is unfortunate that protecting birds comes at the expense of inconveniencing innocent amateur naturalists, but the sad reality is that such restrictions are necessary. We’ve come a long way from the days of stuffing birds and putting them on hats, but not enough has changed to let our guard down just yet.  

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow