Migratory Bird Act

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When I was responsible for my university’s vertebrate museum, federal and state wildlife officers would occasionally seek my expertise in identifying illegally gotten and confiscated animal parts, especially those from birds. There were brass knuckles with eagle claws on them, songbird-decorated table centerpieces, and vests made of feathers. Today, Etsy  and Ebay sell real bird skulls as jewelry.

From Etsy

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act became law 1918, prompted by the slaughter of millions of Snowy Egrets and other birds for the feather trade. This was one of the most important wildlife protection laws ever passed,

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior. Some regulatory exceptions apply. Take is defined in regulations as: ‘pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.’ The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 now includes four international conservation treaties U.S. with Canada in 1916Mexico in 1936Japan in 1972, and Russia in 1976.

Golden Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Act

From the Federal Register.“The MBTA applies only to migratory bird species that are native to the United States or U.S. territories. A native migratory bird species is one that is present as a result of natural biological or ecological processes. An updated list of non-native species became available in 2020. It identifies species belonging to biological families referred to in treaties the MBTA implements but are not protected because their presence in the United States or U.S. territories is solely the result of intentional or unintentional human-assisted introductions.”

If you want a list of all the species that are protected, click here.

There are many legal issues addressed in the Congressional Research Service in 2022, such as the inadvertent killing of birds by wind turbines and power lines, the  government-approved killing of pest birds, and the decimation of birds due to oil spills or other human-caused factors. It’s a detailed document but worth a peruse.

There is considerable protection for birds through the MBTA, but there are lots of exceptions, such as the permitted killing by legalized sport hunting. Perhaps what many of us don’t realize is that the law prohibits the taking of birds, feathers, nests, or eggs without a permit. Lots of us, including school teachers who want to educate their students with feathers or bird nests as demonstrations, collect these items on occasion. Don’t do it. The law isn’t there to punish educators for picking up feathers off the ground, it’s there to prevent unscrupulous characters from killing birds for their parts and saying they just found the bird. And selling those parts on Etsy. (Etsy and Amazon both sell resin replicas of bird skulls, but only Etsy has real ones. Ebay and Etsy prohibit the sale of endangered or threatened species but still appear to violate the MBTA today.)

4 thoughts on “Migratory Bird Act”

  1. Unfortunately this law is violated regularly and often during land clearing operations and individual tree removals by tree service companies. I’ve never seen a single penalty for felling or removing trees that contained active nests. I believe the Trump administration loosened restrictions so that if the harm is “accidental” then there is no violation.

  2. Can you please comment on this issue?

    Some cities or municipalities may have ordinances preventing bird feeders, while others can issue fines against owners whose feeders are not in compliance with the law. You aren’t likely to be arrested for illegal bird or squirrel feeders, but you may be facing hundreds of dollars in fines.


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