Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birding: On Collecting Bird Feathers

I have come to the conclusion over the years that collecting things is a very human trait. I suspect this harkens back to our prehistoric selves, whose days were filled with collecting, be it foodstuffs for later consumption or burnables for the evening’s fire. With the advent of the corner market and central heating, most of us (at least in this country) no longer have “real needs” that are fulfilled by the urge to collect. As a result, we turn our craving for collectibles to other things, which in my case includes books and sand.

Collecting objects from the outdoors is therefore a natural habit. Who among us as a child didn’t come home with pockets full of rocks, or pluck a few flowers to present to Mom? Even as adults we eagerly pick up nature’s little treasures when they come our way. Two of the more commonly collected items are feathers and nests.

I’m always torn in two when a child comes into the lobby all excited to show me the feathers he found along the trail. First I congratulate him on such a wonderful find and try to help him identify the bird from which they came. But then I have to play the heavy, telling him he cannot keep the feathers. Many a crest has fallen when those words are spoken, and often the accompanying adults are equally unhappy, if only because the child’s bubble has been burst.

While in today’s world it is probably safe to say that the greater majority of feathers and nests that are brought into the home are honest finds, there are two federal laws that make it illegal: the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The first bit of legislation prohibited interstate commerce in wildlife (birds, mammals, et al), while the latter concentrated strictly on birds. Both laws were drafted in an effort to save many bird species from extinction, a fate that was looming thanks to the over-popularity of birds in the fashion industry.

Back in Victorian times, the use of birds’ feathers on hats was all the rage. In fact, it wasn’t long before mere feathers weren’t enough, and soon wings and even whole birds started to show up on the millinery creations of the time. I’ve seen photographs of some of those hats, and the sheer size of them is mind-boggling, but when one looks closely to see the birds and nests that decorate them, it is staggering.

While doing research for an exhibit about the history of birding several years ago, I read many accounts of the gruesome feather trade. Birding as a hobby was becoming popular at about the same time, and many an eager bird enthusiast would follow directions to an egret colony (for example) only to find the ground littered with the stripped, bloody and fly-covered carcasses of the adults (the feather hunters were after just the breeding plumes, which were ripped from the backs of still living birds), while overhead in the nests the young cried as they perished from heat and starvation. Tales of inhumane treatment of birds span the globe, from the United States to the tropics, from the New World to the Old.

It was thanks to the efforts of two women, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna, that the above-mentioned laws were eventually passed. The long and the short of these acts is that it is illegal to collect birds or anything belonging to birds (eggs, nests, feathers). This applies mostly to our migratory native birds, not necessarily to game birds (such as turkeys) or non-natives (like starlings). The only people who can legally collect eggs, feathers, nests, or even whole birds, are those who have the proper permits from the state and/or federal governments. This includes educational institutions, like colleges and nature centers.

So, when Johnny comes in with a blue jay feather, I have to tell him he cannot keep it. The odds are that Johnny probably found the feather on the ground, he didn’t kill the bird to get it. Still, one cannot determine the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt just by looking at the feather. If one is found to be in possession of bird parts without the proper paperwork, one could face a hefty fine and possibly even time in jail.

In today’s world that may seem a bit extreme, but it was only a hundred years ago that many of our most glorious birds were facing extinction due to a fashion craze. Thanks to some timely legislation, we can all enjoy seeing herons and egrets, bluebirds and hummingbirds today.

Related Stories


Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





13 Responses

  1. John Warren says:
  2. The Zen Birdfeeder says:
  3. Ellen Rathbone says:
  4. martyschmitt1 says: