I have lately heard of several instances where landowners are taking matters into their own hands and killing birds that they consider nuisances.  These reports involve recently returned songbirds like House Wrens whose energetic singing in the early morning disturbs peoples’ sleep and woodpeckers drumming on eaves or searching for insects in trees on a landowner’s woodlot.  Such killing is a federal misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine not to exceed $15,000 or imprisonment not to exceed six months for each bird killed.  The financial risks are therefore huge.  I thought today’s column would be beneficial in presenting information on federal laws related to birds.

These federal laws that protect our native birds were enacted in the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.  “Migratory bird” is taken to mean any native bird.  Specifically, there is a federal prohibition, unless permitted by regulations, for anyone to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” (16 U.S.C. 703).

Most states have similar regulations protecting native birds, such that violations may be both federal and state crimes.

Let’s break down this long federal statute.  First, it is illegal to kill a native bird.  Exceptions are gamebirds whose management falls under both federal and state control. In Maine, gamebirds include Ruffed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasant, Wild Turkey, waterfowl, rails, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe and Mourning Doves.  Such regulations set the hunting season and the maximum number of birds that can taken.  Federal and state hunting permits are required.

Ornithologists who wish to collect native birds for scientific research must obtain a federal Scientific Collecting Permit.  This permit requires that the applicant present strong evidence for the need for collecting birds.  Most states require a state collecting permit as well.  A Scientific Collecting Permit is also required if a person wishes to maintain wild birds in captivity.

Capturing a native bird requires a federal Bird Banding Permit and usually a state banding permit as well.  A Master Banding Permit is not easy to obtain.  One must first gain experience in removing birds from mistnets and handling birds.  The application form requires the endorsement of two Master Banders who can vouch for an applicant’s skill.  Then, the applicant must provide a sound scientific justification for the proposed research in which banding birds is required. Mistnets or traps for bird capture may not be purchased without a Master Banding Permit.

So far, we can see that federal and state laws prohibit the killing and capture of native birds without the appropriate permits to do so.  In the statute above, you can also see that it is illegal to possess a bird or any part thereof.   It is therefore illegal to have even a single feather of a native bird in your possession.  What’s the harm in picking up a bird feather you might ask?  The strictness of the statute makes sense from a regulatory point of view.

Imagine a man had a recently prepared mount of a Bald Eagle in his home.  When questioned about how he came to have the Bald Eagle, the man claims he found it dead on the roadside and used his taxidermy skills to mount the eagle in a lifelike pose.  One might suspect that this man may have shot the Bald Eagle, but has no proof.  With the “illegal possession” statute, the man would be in violation of the law.  Scofflaws could not make an end run around the stricture against killing native birds by claiming they found a specimen dead.  To possess whole birds, feathers or eggs, a federal Salvage Permit is required.

How about introduced birds?  They are not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty.  Rock Pigeons, European Starlings and House Sparrows may be captured, killed or possessed without any legal repercussions.

Springtime heralds the return of the migratory birds from their winter homes.  The morning chorus of birds is beautiful to many people, but to some the exuberant singers disturb sleep and create too much music.  The good news for those people is that by mid-June the birds are nesting and much quieter.

[First published on May 15, 2011]