When I was a kid, my parents had a strict rule about bird feathers—absolutely no touching. Feathers were full of germs and should not be touched, they told me.
But it wasn’t long after becoming a parent myself that my own toddlers would came running up to me with fistfuls of treasures—rocks, leaves, twigs and of course, feathers.
At first, my instinct told me to pluck the feathers out of their hands and give those hands a good scrubbing. But faced with their disappointment, I began to question if this was necessary. Were feathers actually full of germs? Was it safe to for us to handle them? I didn’t want to deny my kids the opportunity to explore nature, but I also wanted to keep them safe.
So I did some digging.
See also: Top 3 Worst Bird Feeding Mistakes
Can Bird Feathers Make You Sick?
It turns out, my parents didn’t need to worry after all. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that it is safe to handle feathers, as long as you are not in an area where there have been cases of the avian flu virus. The virus has been detected in poultry and in more than 100 different species of wild birds, mostly waterfowl and shorebirds. But the North American avian flu is different than the Asian avian flu, which has caused serious illnesses in humans. The North American lineage flu virus has very rarely infected people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the risk to the general public from avian flu is low. Avian flu is typically spread through close and prolonged contact with the excretions of infected birds. All in all, it would be extremely unlikely to get a disease from a feather you find in your backyard.
See also: What to Do If You Find a Sick Bird
Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after handling a bird feather. Or, after cleaning out a bird feeder. And handling dead birds should be avoided. But by and large, it is safe to pick up bird feathers you find in North America.
But the story doesn’t stop there. While it may be safe to pick up feathers, taking them home is not such a good idea.
Is it Okay to Keep the Feathers You Find?
In 1918, the United States and Canada signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in order to end the commercial trade of feathers. The act protects most North American birds, except for non-native species such as the house sparrow and European starling, and game birds like ducks and geese. Over a thousand birds are protected by the act, even birds that overwinter locally.
The MBTA makes possession of any part of a protected bird—including the feathers—illegal. It doesn’t matter how you obtained the feather; it’s against the law to even possess one found on the ground.
So next time I’m out hiking with my children, or we happen upon a feather in our backyard, I’ll encourage them to pick it up and examine it. Observing the details of feathers can be as valuable of a way to learn about birds as watching them with your binoculars.
But when we’re done, we will place it back on the ground where it belongs.