goopy gold in fine feather
April 2018 by V. R. Duin


They skipped on down to the local pet store,
And picked a bird that squawked with a roar.
“Ack! Ack!” It squawked and loudly shrieked,
Puffed its feathers, snapped its beak.

Our “fine-feathered friend,” Dolly the Parrot, is in “fine feather” when she discusses bird feathers, but she may “ruffle someone's feathers” by explaining that it is illegal to “feather one's nest” with some of them.

To “feather one's nest” means to do something for personal gain. To “ruffle someone's feathers” is to upset or annoy that individual. The ceremonious use of feathers in headdresses and masks reflects the honor and glory of feathers. To be in “fine feather” is to be of good humor. There also is “my fine-feathered friend”, which entered wide use when Sylvester used this humorous expression in Bugs Bunny cartoons to address Elmer Fudd. “A feather in one's cap” describes something of which to be proud.

Language is full of feathery expressions, because feathers are attractive to people. Feathers have been put to wide use as adornments in fashion and accessories. Feather fillings are used to add soft insulation to pillows and comforters. Feathers are unique to birds and to their ancestors. Feathers offer protection and help distinguish the sex of birds. Male birds fashionably display their feathers to lure females. Feathers are special to people and birds. It may “ruffle someone's feathers” to learn that to “feather one's nest” with a fine feather from migrating birds may carry some risk.

The decimation and endangerment of birds for human pleasure caught the attention of environmentalists and strict laws were passed to protect remaining populations. Until recently, in the United States, even an unintentional or accidental act that harmed these birds was punishable as a federal crime. Fortunately, this administrative policy was reversed. Companies and individuals are no longer at risk of $15,000 fines and imprisonment of up to six months for the accidental killing or maiming of one of these birds. However, consequences remain for intentional acts. It remains illegal to use feathers from certain birds in certain countries. For instance, eagle feathers are protected in the United States.

The policies of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are enforced and published by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This act was established in 1918 to make it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture or kill migratory birds”. Strict limits were placed on hunting seasons for these birds, if any hunting was allowed. The law was intended to fine and imprison poachers. As is the case of many laws, the net expanded beyond those making an illegal business of selling feathers. In recent years, “taking” was strictly interpreted to include picking up a single fine feather from one of these birds. This made feather identification critical to staying out of jail.

“Killing” was broadly interpreted to include the accidental death of birds that happened to fly into company tar pits, plane propellers, oil tanks or windmills. Imagine the impact of this interpretation. This law punished the owners of private passenger vehicles for killing migratory birds that flew into the windshields. Prosecution now has more reasonable bounds, but it remains illegal to deliberately move protected bird nests, steal their eggs or take carcasses for stuffing. Fortunately, technology has advanced in the production of fake feathers that look like the real thing.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is in effect to protect birds migrating between the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico and Russia. One should not take any affirmative action to “feather one's nest” with migrating native bird feathers in these countries. There are over a thousand species of protected migratory birds. These can include birds from many different species. There are as many as 10,000 different species of birds in the world. The birds on these lists are making a comeback, in part because fashions have changed. Of course, this in turn may put the prey of these birds in a difficult situation.

Under the strict letter of this law, crop farmers cannot shoot marauding crows, because these birds are protected. Hunters should consider putting their decoys in storage. Ducks are included on the list of protected migrating birds. It will not “ruffle someone's feathers” if you take a fine feather from fowl that does not migrate, such as bobwhites, pheasants, quails or turkeys. There are other laws and treaties to protect the world's endangered species of birds. Threatened and endangered birds are included in the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Be careful, “my fine-feathered friend”, when you go after a fine feather. You need to know precisely which bird is the source. Some birds may be not be captured, hunted or pursued. Since experienced birders often cannot determine the source of a single feather, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory has created an online Feather Atlas for their officers and the general public to use in the search, appreciation and identification of a bird's fine feather.

Unless you are a bird, it remains illegal to “ruffle someone's feathers” by taking an affirmative action to “feather one's nest”. The feathers of song birds, marsh birds and birds of prey remain protected. A single fine feather may come with a feather fine. Only birds themselves remain free to build or line their nest-like structures with a rainbow of fine feathers. However, an intentional act by a human to “feather one's nest” with an array of migratory bird feathers may find the guilty party doing some hard time.

Ruffle Someone's Feathers

  • Fine Feather Dolly says:

    A bird does a good job of keeping its fine feather coat shiny through preening, but bird owners need to provide a mist spray, shower or bath of plain, tepid, clean, filtered water for pets in captivity.

  • Ruffle Someone's Feathers Dolly says:

    It should ”ruffle someone's feathers” when bird owners do not trim their poor pets' beaks and nails routinely, or arrange to have this work done professionally.

    • feather one's nestDolly says:

      To feather one's nest with safe feathers, there is more information about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act on the Fish and Wildlife Service site.