I have made a video about this topic, you can find it at the bottom of this post.
Two of the more common messages I get from friends is a ping for some good roadkill they saw, and if I want to come pick up something dead that they found on their property. (I am so fortunate to have friends who accept my weirdness like that!) More often than not it is something I can come get, but every once in awhile it is something like this beautiful and tragically deceased western screech owl.
Here in the USA, as well as Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Russia, almost all wild birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) which makes it “illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird” except if you have certain very specific permits – which I personally do not possess. This law also covers feathers that birds naturally shed for the record, as you cannot prove you found them rather than poached them.
People often ask me why? Why can’t they have bird feathers from something like a crow, after all, there are plenty in their neighborhood! Well, the laws were put in place in 1918 during a time when many bird species were threatened by the commercial trade in birds and bird feathers. To put it simply, too people wanted really fancy hats covered in feathers and they were basically exterminating birds in order to fill that desire.
So what kind of birds can you have without violating the law? Domesticated birds like chickens as well as feral pigeons are fine, some foreign species like toucans can be collected, as well as most invasive species. I have two English sparrow skeletons for example, and my son has some European starling eggs in his collection, that are not protected by the MTBA due to being invasive here. However, unless you are quite knowledgeable in bird identification, it is best just to admire the feather where it is, or leave the dead bird where it fell, and move on.
When people tell me about lovely intact finds like this owl, I generally tell them to call DNR. They sometime come get it them for disease testing, or they can point you towards someone who can legally collect and display it, which are usually universities and other educational centers.
So to recap, unless you are an expert in bird identification and knowledgeable on what is legal to own, and you also happen to carry protect gear with you (disease transmission from birds is a very real thing) it is best to just leave the birds you find be. No matter how tempting it is not worth the large fine you can receive or even potential prison time.