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Do You Have Eagle Feathers?
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Article ID: 13490
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Lupa [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 30th. 2009
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Not too long ago I went to a local festival that attracts not only pagans but also other magical folk. One of the first things I saw when I walked through the gate was a man with several of what looked like barn owl feathers worked into his costume. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence at the festivals I frequent. Almost every time I go to one, I see at least one person with owl, hawk or other raptor feathers on their person or ritual tools.
Which makes me wonder—how many of these people realize that these and other feathers are illegal to possess in the United States? Furthermore, how many pagans (and non-pagans) possess other animal parts that are illegal?
There’s a lot of ignorance in the pagan community about the possession of feathers (and, by extension, other animal parts, though I’m mainly going to focus on feathers since even vegetarians may be known to wear fallen feathers in their hair) . I’ve even seen a few books by prominent pagan authors that have advocated the use of owl or other illegal feathers in spells and ritual tools.
Allow me to briefly explain some of the legalities in the U.S. and elsewhere, starting with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) . Enacted in 1918, the MBTA protects all birds that migrate among any two or more of the following countries: The United States, Mexico, Russia, Japan and Canada. This includes most wild birds found in the U.S.—to include all raptors, as well as songbirds, corvids (yes, that includes the common crow) , and game birds like geese and ducks.
There are hunting provisions made for the lattermost group, but there are still plenty of restrictions. There are also permits for Native American tribal members and scientists to apply for possession of raptor feathers.
Another law that’s highly crucial in this discussion is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. 175 countries have signed CITES so far, so chances are if you’re reading this, you’re in one of those countries. CITES restricts the trade in about 5, 000 species of animal and almost 30, 000 species of plant in participating countries. There are three different categories, or appendices, that a species may fall under, each with its own restrictions on how much or little trade may be done and how it’s regulated.
While it’s more specific, the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 is the biggie when it comes to bald and golden eagle feathers. Ever heard of the massive fines of thousands of dollars for the possession of a single eagle feather? This is where it comes from.
A few more laws for you to do research on are the Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) , Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (U.S.) , Endangered Species Act of 1973 (U.S.) , and the Wildlife and Countryside Act (U.K.) . However, the three above are the main ones I wanted to touch on before getting into the meat of my discussion.
So why does it matter? Surely there aren’t roving game wardens wandering the land peering into pagan ritual rooms to see if there are contraband feathers scattered at the four quarters. Okay, so things aren’t that bad. However, many pagan events are held on public park land, and even those that aren’t may have someone who is a game warden or other official happen by. Those people may very well act on the law—or they may suggest that the organizers of the event no longer be able to hold that event there.
Think of it as having a small amount of marijuana on your person. Many police officers may not care, especially if they have violent crimes to occupy themselves. However, if you’re carrying it openly, they can’t just turn a blind eye in most cases. Same thing with illegal feathers.
“But, Lupa, I just found this feather on the ground! Surely that’s not hurting anyone!”
Okay, so you say that you found it. But there is literally no way to know that that feather came from a molting bird, and wasn’t yanked from a carcass that someone just illegally shot. That’s why possession itself, and not just the killing, is illegal. If possession were okay, then the people who illegally shoot golden and bald eagles to put the feathers on the black market could just say they found them.
No, it’s not fair, but the laws are there for a reason.
A little over a hundred years ago, feathered hats were all the rage in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many wild bird species were decimated to supply the demand, and more than one species was driven to extinction. While the feathered hat trade has died off itself for the most part, animal parts are one of the most commonly illegally traded goods, up there with drugs and weapons. This includes everything from tiger parts for Chinese traditional medicine to African elephant ivory for various purposes.
The laws don’t entirely stop the illegal trade, but they do provide officials tools for prosecuting those who are caught. If hunting were allowed to go unchecked, we’d soon have even more species going extinct than we already do. While picking up a fallen feather is very different from shooting a wild bird, because of the ambiguity of the source of any given feather, it’s better to play it safe when it comes to making laws.
“Well, what about our spiritual rights? The Indians get to apply for feathers for spiritual uses, why can’t we? Isn’t that religious discrimination?”
The main difference between new religions (and no one has proven to me that any neopagan religion has an unbroken lineage thousands of years old) to established indigenous religions that have been around for centuries or millennia—is precedent.
Any person can say that illegal feathers are part of their spiritual practices—but that doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Someone who feeds eagle feathers into the black market could just as easily say that those supposedly “found” feathers are for their own personal spiritual use.
Additionally, the number of feathers that are available to indigenous people and scientists is limited to a far fewer number than the demand. If everyone who wanted a permit got a feather, there’d be a lot fewer eagles out there! Again, let me remind you what happens when everyone wants feathers—demand goes up, supply goes down, and there are only so many flight feathers on an eagle.
What it comes down to is that the laws are there because of the people who won’t play fair, the cheaters in the game of life. And if authorities start making exceptions, then sooner rather than later the cheaters will catch on (not including those, of course, who have already figured out how to work the system, use bribes, etc.) . There’s enough work for officials to do going after people who are involved big-time in the black market without them needing to worry overmuch about the activities of everyday people.
Yes, it sucks, and some of you are still going to have your feathers even being informed about the legalities. I’m not going to stop you, nor will I report you. What I am going to say is that I choose to abide by the laws because they’re there to protect the animals themselves.
I’m a little higher profile than the average pagan since I make ritual tools and other artwork out of animal parts and sell them on my website, the Green Wolf, and so I do need to be more careful. However, I’d strongly encourage others to really weigh their options with the information that I’ve provided in hand.
One final note--I’ve found that the totems and other spirits have no problem with substitutes for feathers and other parts. There are easily-obtained fake eagle and hawk feathers available, as well as resin raptor claws.
The spirits I work with appreciate these substitutes, because it’s less pressure on their physical counterparts, and I’ve never had them be less effective in practice. If anything, it shows honor to the spirits by acknowledging the impact we humans have on them.
Check the following websites for text and other information on the laws discussed:
Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/mmpa/ (Marine Mammal Protection Act)
http://ipl.unm.edu/cwl/fedbook/mmpa.html (Marine Mammal Protection Act amendments)
http://epw.senate.gov/esa73.pdf (Endangered Species Act of 1973)
http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1377 (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981)
Copyright: Copyright Lupa, 2009
Location: Portland, Oregon
Author's Profile: To learn more about Lupa - Click HERE
Bio: Lupa is a pagan and (neo) shaman living in Portland, OR with her husband Taylor Ellwood, their two cats, and lots of books and art supplies. She is a graduate student, an environmentalist and sustainability geek, a voracious reader and book reviewer, an artist, and several other things. She is also the author/editor of several books/anthologies and numerous articles on pagan and magical topics. She may be found online at http://www.thegreenwolf.com , http://therioshamanism.com , http://paganbookreviews.com and http://lupabitch.livejournal.com
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