In most cases, collecting feathers in the United States is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the possession of bird feathers, parts, and eggs. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enjoy a feather-finding hobby.
While MBTA permits exist, it’s somewhat difficult to secure one, especially for personal collections. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, permits can be acquired for activities such as “falconry, raptor propagation, scientific collecting, special purposes (rehabilitation, educational, migratory game bird propagation, and salvage), take of depredating birds, taxidermy, and waterfowl sale and disposal.” I have never applied for a permit, but if I ever do, it would probably be in a situation in which I’m doing scientific research or educational programs, and not for a purely personal feather collection. You can read about each of the different permit options here: https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/permits/need-a-permit.php
To avoid the need for a permit altogether, I photograph the feathers I find and promptly put them back down. That is the case for most of the feathers I have posted to iNaturalist recently, and I would suggest that approach if you want to completely avoid any issues of legality. With my mobile phone, it’s usually a 20-second process to pick up a feather, photograph the front and back, and release it to the wind, leaving me with a digital souvenir that I can share and take anywhere. Plus, then I have a record of exactly where and when I found each feather, thanks to photo metadata! This is something that I wish I had started doing much sooner.
You might also consider nature journaling, if that’s your cup of tea. Fellow blogger Jean Mackay does a stunning job of capturing the essence of natural beauty with paint and paper, two feathery examples of which can be seen here and here. And Valia, who co-manages the Found Feathers project with me, truly has an artistic eye for feathers and it shows (links to Instagram).
If you do specifically want to collect, know that not all feathers are created equal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A select few species are not protected, a list of which can be found here: https://www.fws.gov/birds/management/managed-species/migratory-bird-treaty-act-not-protected-species.php
You’ll note that Odontophoridae (New World Quail) and Phasianidae (pheasants/turkey/grouse) are not protected. This means that native landfowl species such as California Quail and Wild Turkey aren’t protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (although other legislation may apply, especially with respect to hunting). Domestic, captive species are not protected either, which is why craft feathers are most often derived from domestic turkey, chicken, pheasant, goose, et cetera. And invasive species such as the incredibly common and widely-distributed House Sparrow, Feral Rock Pigeon, and European Starling are completely legal to collect.
On the flip side, here is a list of all MBTA-protected species, which covers virtually everything else: https://www.fws.gov/birds/management/managed-species/migratory-bird-treaty-act-protected-species.php
Because of the sheer number of protected species, unless you’re certain about the ID of your feather and have time to double-check every piece of relevant legislation, it’s best to assume that without a permit, every feather is illegal to take.
Whatever your approach is to feather finding, respect towards wildlife and their natural habitats should always be your chief priority. There are many good reasons for why the legislation is so strict, and selfish motivations should never trump your integrity.
That said, good luck, and happy feather finding!
** Please note that this is not a definitive guide to all laws concerning the possession of feathers in the United States, and is merely an overview of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. My intention in publishing this article is to encourage and draw attention to the ways in which feathers can be interacted with in a respectful and legal manner.