Minor Q: I remember my mom being super-strict about not picking up or touching bird feathers if we were out on a walk because “birds carry disease.” Is this a real thing? My 4-year-old found a beautiful bluebird feather the other day, and I told her not to touch it. 🙁 We love nature and I am very chill about most things — but this stuck with me.—Jessica
I also recall this vividly from my childhood. It’s weird the stuff that sticks with us!
I did some digging.
Like all animals, birds can carry disease. For example, they can carry avian influenza. However, your chance of getting avian influenza from a bird feather is … zero, outside of areas with active avian influenza (you would know if you were in one).
There are some diseases (like “pigeon lung disease”) that can be spread through extensive exposure to bird feces and dander. But, again, picking up a single feather is not a risk factor for this.
Basically, the chance of getting ill from a bird feather is really, really, really small. Probably even much smaller than the risk of E. coli from a petting zoo (see last week’s question).
However: in my digging I learned that it is actually illegal to take home feathers from many species of birds. Any birds that are migratory (e.g. geese, ducks, etc.) are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and it is forbidden to take any bird parts home. That includes feathers, eggs, nests, and dead birds. Your bluebird may or may not be covered; I am not an expert in migratory bird species.
Bottom line: next time, rather than telling your child the feather is dirty, just tell them that if they pick it up they’ll go to jail. That’s good parenting.