Could a Feather Send You to Jail?


Raymond Reddington (left), Monny (right), Stretch (center)

While conducting research for my WIP, I stumbled across a law that blew my mind. As many of you know, I’m a huge animal lover. I would no more harm an animal than a member of my family. However, according to this statute, I may have inadvertently broken the law. And you might be guilty, too!

Years ago, I developed a fascination with eagles while writing Wings of Mayhem. When I wrote Blessed Mayhem, I became enamored with crows and ravens, as well. For those who aren’t familiar with Blessed Mayhem, Mr. Mayhem (the antagonist) has three pet crows. So, as the author, I had to know as much about crows as he did to portray him in a realistic manner. For months I studied their mannerisms, favorite foods, habitat, reproductive life, rituals, complex communication skills, body language, etc. And later, befriended a mating couple in my yard. You might remember my post about wildlife.

Some Native Americans believe that when a feather drops from the sky it carries the power of the bird, that crows live in two parallel universes, with one talon in a spiritual realm and one in the physical world, that they’re fore-tellers of change and messengers of the spirit world. When a crow visits, s/he expects to find our authentic self.

In writing, our character’s “authentic self” or “true character” is the 3rd Dimension of Character, the person only those closest to him truly know. The antagonist, especially a killer, will want to portray a false facade in public (1st Dimension of Character) to evade detection.

For my Mayhem Series, I take note of how my body reacts in the presence of crows, and then I transfer that emotion to the page to show Mr. Mayhem’s soft side.

Poe showing Shakespeare how to eat fries.

When my beloved murder of nine glides into the yard — awe-inspiring wings in perfect harmony with members of their tribe — my breath quickens, the world falls away.

As my stiff shoulders ease, I marvel at these incredible birds. I consider it an honor that they’ve let me share in the joyfulness of newborn chicks and the devastation of loss. I’ve reveled in their teachings of how to fly without smashing into a sibling’s wings, the intricacies of how best to crack peanut shells, and the unwavering belief that leftover French fries taste amazing first thing in the morning.

It’s probably no surprise then that when Poe leaves me a feather, I treasure her generous gift. But now, darn it, I found that pesky law …

Authorities created the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 when folks killed too many birds for the sole purpose of adorning their hats with feathered bling. It’s a broad-brush law intended to protect birds. Which is fabulous. The downside is, the law doesn’t recognize the difference between plucked feathers, shed feathers, or bird pieces. None of it is allowed in our possession. The Act lists over 800 birds. Crow feathers top that list, along with eagles, owls, ravens, hawks, and even blue jays.

In order to keep a feather collection, we need to visit our local Fish & Game headquarters and pull a permit. Maybe one of our TKZ legal minds could weigh in on any stipulations of obtaining said permit? I can’t bear to toss the feathers back in the yard, as the law requires. Poe and Edgar might consider it a slap across the beak.

Did you know it was illegal to pick up a feather? According to this law, not only are we required to figure out the exact species of bird who dropped the feather, but we need to cross-check the list to see if the feather is protected under federal law. The harmless act of collecting a feather from your yard could wind up costing you a hefty fine and even a misdemeanor conviction!

This discovery sent shock waves through my writer brain. Perhaps I could use this law in my WIP. We’re always searching for an interesting new angle, aren’t we?

Some of the ways I considered using this law are …

  • What if the detective uses the Migration Bird Act as “probable cause” to obtain a search warrant?
  • What if the confiscated feathers linked a suspect to the victim?
  • What if the detective witnesses a strange man pocketing a protected feather off the beach (yes, sea gulls are also on that watch-list) and he follows him to a killing lair?

None of those worked for my story, though. Too easy. I may have to abandon the idea.

How might you use the Migration Bird Act to heat up the investigation? Were you aware of this law?


Sue Coletta is on a path. She earned her ticket into the crowded arena of dark thriller contenders with her previous novel (“Marred”), and in “Wings of Mayhem” she announces her arrival with the wail of approaching sirens and the quiet horror of a blade swinging at your throat in the dark. Don’t miss this one. A star is born.” ~ Larry Brooks

Look inside Wings of Mayhem HERE.


This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writerslife, research, research for novels, Writing and tagged , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

21 thoughts on “Could a Feather Send You to Jail?

  1. Actually, being married to a biologist, and having a minor in Biology myself, yes, I did know this (and I taught it to my classes back in the dark ages when I was teaching.) Native Americans, as I recall, can collect eagle feathers.
    However, I’ve never thought to use that law in a book.

    • You’re correct, Terry. Native Americans are the only ones allowed to possess eagle feathers, as they use them for religious purposes. Which makes sense. But some of the birds on list are in most people’s yard. To think we can’t pick up a feather they’ve dropped or we’re breaking the law? That shocked me. I love using unusual facts in my books. 🙂

  2. Indian people can collect eagle feathers, but they must have federal permission to do so.

    Back in the early 70s, I had moved my family to Norman, Oklahoma from Phoenix so I could do some work in fiction writing as a special student at the University of Oklahoma.

    While there, I used to write for the supermarket tabloids because they paid reasonably well and there were many of them.

    One day, I watched a television news story about how members of an Indian family had been arrested and fined for possession of eagle feathers. I drove over and gathered information. The family was hugely embarrassed because they themselves had not gathered the feathers. Another family had brought the feathers and asked the first family to decorate them with bead work. The first family often did not even charge for doing beadwork, but would often take groceries as payment for their skills. (Even now, I cannot say what the second family had to say about how they came into possession of the feathers, as my comment would break a commitment I made to a source.)

    Somehow, the feds found out, arrived en masse, and proceeded to work the process as if the first family had been caught smuggling drugs.

    I wrote the story for one of the now-defunct tabloids. In the process of researching the story, I learned that many or most Indian people use painted turkey feathers for their regalia decorations, not wanting to break the law. Many feel it is too complicated to apply for federal authorization to own eagle feathers.

    The whole matter produced heartache and horror for a law-abiding family.

    • What a heartbreaking story, Jim. That poor family. Yes, in my research I discovered painted turkey feathers. I’ve never seen a single eagle feather in person, but the turkey impostors are beautiful. The other day a hawk dropped a tail feather in my walkway. It took all my will power not to pick it up. The way this law is written really bums me out. I wish shed feathers were excluded, but I suppose it would be too difficult for authorities to distinguish.

  3. Fascinating and scary, Sue. Thanks for alerting us unwitting criminals. Jim’s story is tragic. As usual, Congress passed a sledgehammer law when a fly swatter would have solved the problem. Pardon my cynicism but it’s easier and safer to bust nature lovers armed only with feathers than dangerous criminals armed with automatic weapons.

    • As usual, Congress passed a sledgehammer law when a fly swatter would have solved the problem.

      I agree, Debbie. I’m all for the protection of birds. Heck, I’m a member of the Audubon society. I would NEVER harm a bird. And yet, by possessing the wrong feather I could wind up with arrest record. Crazy!

  4. I did know it’s against the law to take and raise a wild animal without some permission but I didn’t know about the feather law. We live and learn, don’t we? —- Suzanne

    • We sure do, Suzanne. I knew about taking a wild animal and raising it without a permit, which isn’t a very nice thing to do, IMO. They deserve to live free. Twice a day I stand on Poe’s rock and call into the sky. A few moments later, Poe and her beautiful family soar into the yard. Crows are so intelligent!

  5. While doing some research recently during a neighborhood chat board discussion, I learned that it’s illegal to destroy a bird’s nest. That came as a surprise to some neighbors. Dropped Feathers being illegal to pick up is a new one to me, though!

    Btw, I’m so happy to hear you say such positive things about crows—I have a few crows who are regular visitors to our yard (along with songbirds, hummingbirds, squirrels, and other critters), and I usually hear only negative comments about them from neighbors and on social media. I think they’re amazingly smart and interactive—one of them follows me around the neighborhood whenever I go out for a walk. It feels as if we’re communicating somehow ?.

    • Love that he follows you, Kathryn! I’ve experienced the same thing. Once a crow marks you as “safe” they’ll hang close. Too many people think of them as nuisances, which breaks my heart. On the flip-side, anyone who tries to harm a crow is marked for life. Generation after generation will learn of the “dangerous face,” sort of like a Crow’s Most Wanted list. When I found that out, I used the tidbit in Blessed Mayhem. Too good not to!

      I have no doubt that you two are communicating. Crows are very social animals, with a family structure much like ours. I just adore them. Watching Poe and her family is the highlight of my day. If you ever get the chance, check out Canuck and I:
      As a fellow crow lover, you’ll love the videos.

      • Crows regularly visit my balcony bird feeder here in Michigan. The usual guys are chickadees, cardinals and various finches. The feeder perches are small so the big guys stay away.

        Except for one giant crow. He has figured out a way to hang upside down and get the seed. It’s comical to watch, so I let him hang out. When the feeder is empty, he sits on the balcony ledge and screams. I sit right inside the screen slider door and he just sits there, stares at me and screams. Until I get up and go fill the feeder. He’s got me well trained.

        • Hahahaha! Sounds like my crew, Kris. If I’m late with breakfast, they sit outside the window and glare through the glass. If I’m in the other room, they’ve figured out how to sit on the woodshed and use the living room mirror to find me. Amazing birds! The squirrels and chippies aren’t as sly. They’ll press their faces against the glass doors. Adorable little guys.

  6. I recall a story of an artist who collected feathers on nature walks, used some in one of her works, and all legal heck broke loose.

    Another good reason not to even touch feathers is bird mites. Nasty little things. I had a few bald cardinals because of them.

    • Someone using feathers in artwork is a huge no-no, especially if they’re selling the piece. Ah, yes, bird mites. Nasty buggers, aren’t they? Hence why I washed my, umm, turkey feathers. 😉

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