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Originally published February 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 8, 2007 at 2:10 PM

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Backyard wildlife

Backyard feathers in your cap? It's against the law

There it is, the dream feather on the lawn, a sleek brown, javelinlike feather, must be 20 inches long. Bald Eagle. Gotta have it, but it...

Special to The Seattle Times

There it is, the dream feather on the lawn, a sleek brown, javelinlike feather, must be 20 inches long. Bald Eagle. Gotta have it, but it is against the law?

I love feathers; finding them, discovering their stories. It's like sharing a secret with a bird, something only their hairdresser would know for sure. As a child I even tried flying holding feathers, one of those childhood experiments best to not burden your parents with.

If you find a feather, chances are you can't keep it, even if it falls in your backyard. All feathers of every native North American bird are protected by law. Collecting feathers, even from common backyard birds, requires both state and federal permits usually obtainable only by institutions and tribes.

Why can't we keep molted feathers? Bad guys kill protected birds, and our enforcement officers cannot tell if you are telling the truth when you say it was molted, even if you use your local Audubon card as your primary means of identification.

What if you find the whole bird? Bury the remains in your yard or contact the University of Washington's Burke Museum, www.washington.edu/burkemuseum. The museum has a large research collection and may wish to have it.

This enforcement obsession may be a holdover from the feather-trade decades between 1870 and the 1920s when tens of millions of birds were slaughtered to decorate hats. One auction record alone lists more than 1 million heron and egret skins sold between 1897 and 1911. Reports of this carnage led to the formation of the first Audubon Society.

So, take pleasure in the story the feather has to tell. Did it journey with a migrant bird from South America? Is it the remains of a meal enjoyed by a surviving Cooper's hawk? Pick it up, touch it, enjoy it, but you must leave it there, to return, as intended, to the ecosystem.

Patricia Thompson is a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

She can be reached at http://wdfw.wa.gov.

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