Put that bird's nest back where you found it! No, seriously you have to - it's the law.
Nests, bird feathers and eggs all fall under what is called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or MBTA.
The law states that it is "illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter or offer for sale any migratory bird or the parts, nests or eggs of such a bird, except under the terms of a valid permit issued by federal and, in some cases, state agencies."
In the early 1900s, when many species of bird were under threat because of commercial trade, their feathers and eggs were highly prized collector items and the birds themselves were sold as pets, said Dr. Jason Martin, project leader for NestWatch, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
"These activities would likely still be common if this law was not created," Martin said.
The MBTA is a federal law, but many species of birds also are protected by state and even local laws.
Trash or treasure?
So what does that mean to the regular person?
Consider this scenario: A nest is spotted in a bare, lowland shrub in the winter. It may seem innocent enough to pick it up, take it home and show it off. But how do you know it isn't being used?
"Because it's impossible to tell if the nest that person possesses was truly an old, discarded nest or one that was taken while still active, the MBTA prohibits the possession of any nests," Martin said.
He added that some species will reuse old nests from year to year.
"So what appears to be an abandoned nest to us may eventually be a starter home for another bird," Martin said.
Messing with birds' nests also can be a health hazard.
"Sometimes nests will harbor mites and other small insects, so from a health perspective, it's not very desirable for anyone, especially children, to handle them," he added.
Bird feathers often can be found in woods, at feeders or along roads. But, people should resist the urge to pick them up and keep them, too, Martin warned.
"Similarly to nests, because it is difficult to know the actual origin of a feather in someone's possession, the MBTA prohibits the possession of any feathers," he said.
Feathers also can have mites.
"There is a special clause in the MBTA that allows some Native American groups to possess bald and golden eagle feathers associated with religious ceremonies," Martin said.
Game birds, such as wild turkeys and pheasants, are not allowed, but only during designated hunting seasons that are established by federal and state wildlife agencies for those with proper permits.
"So, essentially, a hunting permit serves as an exemption from the MBTA for designated species during designated time frames," Martin said. "The taking of turkeys, their feathers, etc., outside of designated hunting seasons, or during hunting seasons by those not possessing hunting permits, is still illegal under the MBTA."
Dane Poust, partnership or co-owner of Poust Taxidermy, who has been in the business 47 years, said he deals with this kind of thing all the time.
"Say a cardinal flies into someone's wintdow and they bring it to me and want it mounted. I have to tell them it's federally protected and they can't have it," he said. "They didn't have any hand in killing the animal, it just died, but they can't possess it. It usually gets them upset."
Poust thinks the law is a waste of a natural resource.
"It really is," he said, because they have to just dispose of the bird.
Native ducks, doves and pigeons fall under the act, except when they are within their designated hunting seasons.
A few exceptions
Some species are exempted from the law. Non-native species such as European starlings, house sparrows and Eurasian collared doves, are not protected under the MBTA.
These species were introduced, purposely or accidentally, to the United States.
The focus of the MBTA is to protect and conserve native species and natural diversity, Martin noted.
Non-native creatures can be a threat to native species.
House sparrows can overtake nests of bluebirds, even killing adult and young.
Because steps are taken to control non-native species, including them in the MBTA would be counterproductive, Martin said.
"Interestingly, the Muscovy duck, which is native to central and south America but has spread to the U.S. in recent years, is protected under the MBTA," he said. "Even though it was not originally from the U.S. (i.e., non-native), it is now considered native because it spread here on its own and therefore falls under the protection of the MBTA."
Eggs, even those that appear cracked, are a no-no when it comes to nature collectors.
"Again, this has to do with not being able to know how an individual came into possession of the egg. Was it really cracked when they found it, or did it crack after it was illegally taken?" Martin said.
Martin said many small mammals, such as mice, will eat eggshells that fall from nests.
"So it is best to let nature recycle them. Some adult birds will also eat the shells of their hatched eggs in order to recycle the calcium," he added.
Permits a must
Only people with proper permits are able to collect nests, eggs and feathers.
The permits are available for scientific researchers and professional museum collectors. They are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sometimes, Martin said, additional permits may be required by local wildlife agencies when local protection laws and regulations apply.
So it's like this - you can look, you can touch, but don't pocket that and take it home. And, never physically disturb an active nest and its contents.