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Bird Nests: Look But Don’t Collect

11-23-15 mourning dove nest2  005It is prime time to look for bird nests now that leaves have fallen and heavy winter snow has not arrived. Nests such as this Mourning Dove nest are visible and still in fairly good condition. Much can be learned from examining the habitat, exact location, size, shape and construction material of these avian nurseries. But the nests must be left where they are, for possession of not only a bird, but of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.

Ninety-seven years ago the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of our oldest wildlife protection laws, was created. Basically it is a law that protects birds from people. It was made in response to the extinction or near-extinction of a number of bird species that were hunted either for sport or for their feathers. According to the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior.” A list of the species this law pertains to can be seen at

Not all North American bird species are protected under the MBTA. (Passenger Pigeons were not protected, and they no longer exist.) Birds that are considered non-native species such as the House Sparrow and the European Starling are not protected, and many hunted or game birds, including ducks, geese, doves, and many shorebirds are subject to limited protection and can be hunted in season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working on strengthening this bill to better protect birds from modern-day threats (windmills, cell phone towers, etc.). According to USFWS estimates, power lines kill up to 175 million birds a year. Communications towers account for up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million deaths. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates are around 300,000 bird fatalities a year. A number of companies in the oil and power-line sectors have already developed and implemented best practices to protect birds. Let us hope that this trend continues.

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14 responses

  1. Mourning Doves, as well as their nests (pictured), are not protected.

    November 23, 2015 at 7:57 am

  2. David Porter

    Birds need protection from house cats which are also devastating to bird populations.

    November 23, 2015 at 8:14 am

  3. What do i do with all this birds’ nest soup?

    November 23, 2015 at 8:23 am

  4. Roseanne Saalfield

    Mary thanks for this post I admit to having violated federal law dozens of times and have a large nest collection which everyone loves. I am well aware that I am breaking the law when I collect the nests. In my defense, such as it is, I offer that I would never take a nest that would be re-used by the species the following season. (I know that by taking the nest I am taking nesting material that another bird could use another year. I watched a titmouse land in a small maple outside my entryway window last week. At the tippy top of that tree is a small nest, not likely at all to have belonged to the curious titmouse. The tit was, however, very curious about the nest itself and that curiosity gave me pause)

    I now have enough nests that I no longer take a nest which does not in any way enhance my own collection. (I have one or two good robin’s nests and don’t need more, thank you)

    This is a lousy defense from a law breaker and in all other regards I do not break the law by intent. (We encourage swallows to nest in our barn and in fact the back section of our barn has been turned into an aviary. Thankfully this is not where the cars are parked but the whole scene is becoming disgusting. We clean up after the birds many times a season and one year i am going to build a mesh wall that divides my car from the nesting area. Jim promotes the swallows upstairs on the main floor while I believe they ought to learn to be happy with the barn basement. But the swallows are awfully happy.) (We did have one nest utterly collapse. I found five babies dead on the barn floor. Our barn was part of a survey a couple of years ago by WPI students. The Durrants barn was surveyed too. I talked to our young biologist/auditior and it was she who told me of a nationwide issue with barn swallow nest collapse that was being monitored. We’d not had the problem till this year, and only once. Do you know anything about this?)

    So I will try very hard to reform my bad behavior but I wish you would write multiple posts about house cats and their damage in the wild. I know avid birders and even Mass Audubon staff who feed birds, love birds and let their house cats roam. Many of them swear ‘that cat’s not killing birds’ and most if not all of them are wrong. Please write about this.

    Meanwhile, hope your daughter and grandson are wonderful and you are headed toward a great holiday season,

    thanks for all you do. time for me to make another donation.

    Roseanne Saalfield Harvard >

    November 23, 2015 at 8:24 am

    • Roseanne, I felt quite hypocritical as I wrote today’s post, as I, too, am an admirer and past collector of nests. I was never quite sure of the details of the act that protected them, and felt others might share my ignorance, so decided to do this post…I have watched cedar waxwings take apart a Baltimore Oriole nest presumably for the building material it provided them with, so even though most songbirds do not re-use their nests, I know that they are recycled, which has also given me pause. I have a house full of natural material (hornet nests, skulls, scat, etc.) all of which would be recycled if it had been left where I found it, so I am in no way innocent! And I’ll tackle the cat situation in another post some day – as you and others say, that’s much more of a threat these days than egg/bird collectors!

      November 23, 2015 at 8:41 am

  5. Suzanne Weinberg

    Awful stats. Can’t bear to read this. It seems surprising that there are those rules w/o including our house cats, extensions of us humans. Boy, that dove nest sure seems flimsy, doesn’t it? Suzanne

    November 23, 2015 at 9:17 am

  6. Stallworth Larson

    To put the fatalities in perspective can you mention some time bird population figures and annual “natural” deaths. I imagine the fatality numbers are for continental U. S., right?

    Many thanks for your wonderful site which our whole family enjoys, three generations of us. I think my wife has made a donation to you. If not we will.

    Stallworth Larson

    November 23, 2015 at 10:36 am

  7. Marilyn

    One of the many reason my cat is (cats are) indoors-only.
    It seems that it’s illegal to collect feathers that are found on the ground. Except by Native Americans.

    November 23, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    • Marilyn


      November 23, 2015 at 6:15 pm

  8. Loretta Tolwinski

    I guess I’m just a criminal who hates wildlife!

    November 23, 2015 at 8:41 pm

  9. Elizabeth Christie

    but shouldn’t we clean out our bird boxes before next spring?

    November 29, 2015 at 8:41 am

    • Yes, you should (though there are some who think it’s better not to – I’m not one of them). This law is bent by many people, in many ways, just so you don’t feel too guilty!

      November 29, 2015 at 10:35 am

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