Feather Treasure

21 04 2013

IMG_4642Feathers often are spotted lying on the ground in neighborhoods, parks, and deeper in nature. Seagull feathers cover ocean beaches. Duck and geese feathers dot riverbeds and lakeshores. Blue Jay feathers’ characteristic cobalt draws attention in common suburban communities. Feathers, like their avian hosts, come in a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, colors, patterns, and functions.

IMG_4647What are feathers, technically? They are outer epidermal growths, also called plumages, considered the most complex structural layer found in vertebrates. Feathers distinguish birds from other creatures and are necessary for flight, waterproofing, insulation from extreme temperatures, and lining nests. Varied colors and patterns help birds communicate, identify gender, and camouflage from predators. Growth and everyday use causes molting, shedding feathers to be replaced by new ones. The most commonly recognized type of feather is called a vane. A vane is the whole feather including the hollow shaft (quill), afterfeathers (downy lower barbs), barbs (hair-like branches), and the rachis (central shaft where barbs attach).

Wherever you wander outside this season, you’ll come upon feathers from different species. If you scoop one up to admire briefly, enjoying its beauty and appreciating its complexity, put it right back. Why? Most feathers in North America are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and are illegal to possess, even if they are found discarded. The Act protects over 800 species, including nearly 60 legal game birds and most non-migratory birds. Not only is it illegal to keep feathers found in your own yard, but also it is unlawful to remove or possess nests and eggs—even if abandoned, non-functional, or inconveniently located. A few loopholes of the law exist for scientific, educational, control, religious and tribal purposes. If you’re like me, well, none of those IMG_4646loopholes will uphold you in court. My advice: Take your photo opportunity on the spot to document your discovery, and then walk away.

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