Feathers and Felonies:The Impact of U.S. Bird Laws on Modern Spirituality

06/29/2015 10:19 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

In the Betwixt series, I talk a lot about Nature Spirit Allies. For many seekers, these allies are engaged through work with fetishes, or power items, as has become the phrase-of-the-day. For a shamanist, this means possessing some likeness of the Nature being, whether it's a figurine, an image, a bit of fur, a feather... The connection isn't just to keep memorabilia of a fond totem near. When we engage Nature Spirits a relationship is formed, in which reciprocity of need-meeting occurs. In other words, it's a living connection, not just a weird trinket dangling from the rearview mirror.

I frequently see a lot of discussion around the use of feathers and animal parts in such sacred work. Most of the talk centers around fondness for feathers. The thing I don't see in these discussions is the statement that it is illegal in the United States to possess many native feathers.  It is a felony. Every time I interject that fact into the communiqué I'm met with annoyance, excuses, rebellion, and, well, gibbering confusion.

Honestly, it's the latter of those that bothers me the most. It bothers me that people profess to work in a sacred manner with fetishes for which they haven't researched the grounded facts. Sacred work isn't just the etheric, esoteric, woo part. It's also the Responsible To All Other Life part. I'm an animist. I think it's awesome if someone feels an interconnection to a particular bird, or receives a message in the treasure of a feather. Sustaining that lovely blessing doesn't require possession.

Why is it illegal? Well, mostly because the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 says it is. This Act was created as a result of birds dying for decor. That's right--they were killed to spruce up Victorian wardrobes. Bird populations dwindled to become plumage on fancy hats. Other similar Acts were passed in the U.S. other countries, and laws pertaining to the treatment and handling of specific species were set from those. Keep in mind, this is just federal law on such; there are also state regulations that are quite stringent.

Many people also errantly assume that the law only pertains to wild birds. Not true. It also includes more common species, like mallards, crows, and varieties of finches. Check out a detailed list of feathers that are illegal in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

This is not to say that there aren't ways to work with feathers. Not all birds are illegal. For instance, the feathers of turkeys, peacocks, and chickens are legal. These are not only lovely to work with, they can also be painted to represent the markings of other bird feathers. Other birds are also legal if there is proof they were legally sourced, which means they came from a permitted handler. Also, Native Americans who are on respective roles may possess most feathers for religious purposes. Scientists and those who work with bird rehabilitation may also possess them, though within each of those groups there are exclusions that require permits. For instance, most laws stipulate that registered members of federally recognized tribes may posses feathers. This excludes Native Americans who are not registered on accepted roles, and state-recognized tribes.

That's the part that gets most New Agers up in arms. If honoring Nature Spirits is part of their path, they feel they should be able to claim religious exemption, as well. Likewise, naysayers get up in arms about the resources of law enforcement being best-focused on busting real crimes.  To Native Americans this is a real crime, that goes back to the systematic decimation of their rights and cultures. The flaw in contemporary logic is that no other law specifically protects the religious rights of Native Americans. This is the only law created on behalf of their spiritual path, and it sustains because there are hundreds of years of precedence that their sacred work has included the feathers of birds. There is no New Age niche with that claim.

And most of us aren't scientists or wildlife scholars spending our every effort and resources to save that which we love to primp our altars.

To learn more about feathers and how to work with them legally, Chris Maynard has summed feather legalities well. also shares a good summary of the laws.  Lupa maintains a page dedicated to informing on animal parts laws, broken down by state.

Do what's right for you. If you want to risk it, inform yourself of the potential consequences. Unless you're a dynamo at identifying feathers, leave them. Because if we really believe in our paths of Nature spirituality so strongly that we can argue who should have the right to possess feathers, then we also realize that the power of the feather is only partly its physical construct. Its essence is unseen, and we don't have to pick that up from the ground. We can tap into it anywhere, anytime, without disrespect to anyone or anything -- and without going to prison.

If you can perceive the connection, so it is. Having tantrums about who gets to have feathers and who doesn't isn't a very respectful way to honor that bond.
Originally published at Soul Intent Arts.