If you’ve ever stooped to pick up a stray cardinal feather or a wind-blown bird’s nest off the ground and then brought the feather and/or nest into your home, you are breaking the law.

Yes, it’s true.

This was brought to my attention two weeks ago after the publication of an item about decorating with a bird theme.

The item suggested using nests and eggs in decorating, and Ann Burns, the environmental education coordinator with the Jackson County (Iowa) Conservation Board, let me know that we’d better be talking about artificial nests and eggs that you buy in a store, not the real thing.

I’ve been picking up feathers and nests from the ground since I was a child, and it seems pretty harmless. I mean they are on the ground. The bird has no further use for them.

But Burns says there’s a reason for making this illegal.

Possession of feathers and nests was made illegal (with certain exceptions) by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that was passed in response to the severe decline in bird populations because they were hunted to make women’s hats, she explained. The hobby (and the business) of collecting eggs and nests also was impacting bird populations.

The law was written because it would be difficult for enforcement officers to prove one way or the other whether a person had picked the feathers/nests off the ground or had killed the bird or pulled a viable nest out of a tree. By making it illegal to possess them, regardless of how they were obtained, that difficulty was avoided.

The law covers 836 species, including 58 legal game birds.

An exception is for a hunter who legally harvests a game bird. The hunter can keep the feathers or give them to a friend or family member to be used for decorative purposes. 

“So, it is perfectly legal for someone to make a fall decorative wreath and decorate it with pheasant feathers — if the bird was legally harvested and the feathers given to the crafter,” Burns said. 

“This same scenario would hold true for a teacher who wants to use feathers for a science lesson. He or she should ask a hunter to donate some feathers from a legally hunted bird. The teacher would be wise to keep the name of the donor on record.

“Are law enforcement officers looking for teachers with feathers? Doubtful. But there have been some cases in eastern Iowa in the past decade of people who were charged with feather or nest possession — one during a traffic stop and one because the person was selling craft items made with nests of protected birds.”

Exceptions also are made for zoos, nature centers and conservation boards that maintain collections for education. These entities must obtain permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and “we have to keep records of anything we collect and complete annual reports,” Burns said.

Also, house (English) sparrows and starlings are not covered by this law because they are non-native, invasive species. 

“So, yes, put those cardinal feathers back outside,” Burns said. “I usually explain it to young kids that a lot of birds use feathers to line their nests, and so that feather they leave on the ground may wind up in a nest, keeping baby birds warm.

 “The regulations are always surprising to people,” she concluded. “And you are correct. Picking up a pretty cardinal or yellow-shafted flicker feather seems harmless. But there is good reasoning behind the rules.”

P.S. Sometimes domestic chicken, goose and duck feathers are shaped and painted to look like those of other birds. That is OK, too.


NO BROADWAY TOUR THIS YEAR: There will not be a Mother’s Day tour of homes in Rock Island’s historic Broadway neighborhood this year. Organizers could not find enough homes. We wish them better luck next year.


SQUASH FOLLOW: My account last week of making 19 quarts of Butternut Squash Bisque prompted a request for the recipe, which is reprinted at right.  

If you’re a gardener who is still using up butternut squash, this recipe will be a great help. Don’t be thrown off by having to move the mixture from the blender and back. It’s not as much work as it sounds. Enjoy!

And Kim Woodward, the amazing young gardener (and everything else) from Rock Island, said that she, too, had a bumper crop of butternut squash last year. 

“One of the coolest tricks I found is to cook the squash in a Crock Pot,” she said. “Super-simple and yummy. The hardest part is peeling the squash, but when I do a lot at once, I get in the rhythm.”


GYPSY MOTH FOLLOW: The meeting earlier this month in Jackson County, Iowa, to talk about spraying for the invasive gypsy moth (which feeds on oak trees) was nicely attended by 13 people, said Mark Shour, an entomologist at Iowa State University in Ames.

Those attending support spraying and said they wish more acres could be included, he said.

The spraying is expected to be done about the third week of June, provided the necessary funding comes through.

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