What Are the Laws Related to Eagles?

Written by Megan Martin
Published: February 2, 2023
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Most of us know that eagles are protected animals. But what exactly does this mean? And why are eagles protected in the first place? This complete guide will walk you through everything you need to know regarding the laws related to eagles!

About Eagles

Eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca)
Eagles are one of many types of birds, such as hawks, that are found in the family Accipitridae.

©Jrs Jahangeer/Shutterstock.com

Eagles are probably one of the most well-known birds, especially in the United States, where the bald eagle stands as a sign of national pride. Majestic, powerful eagles are found all throughout North America, from Canada into Mexico. They tend to favor open waters, such as streams and rivers. 

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The term “eagle” doesn’t just refer to a single animal, however. Instead, eagles are one of many types of birds, such as hawks, that are found in the family Accipitridae. There are around 60 different species of eagle found in the world, each one categorized as a sea eagle, serpent eagle, forest eagle, or booted eagle. These categories refer to the birds’ diet and habitat. 

Two of the most well-known eagles, and those that laws revolve around, include the bald eagle and the golden eagle

Laws Protecting Eagles

Bald eagles and golden eagles are federally protected species. Several national laws protect eagles, as well as many other types of birds.

Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act

Golden Eagle
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prevents anyone from interacting with bald eagles and golden eagles without the proper permits.

©Al Carrera/Shutterstock.com

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was first established in 1940. However, back then, it only protected bald eagles. It has been amended several times throughout its history, including an amendment that added golden eagles to this protected status. 

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prevents anyone from interacting with bald eagles and golden eagles without the proper permits. This helps keep the population safe and thriving. 

Several actions are prohibited through the act. No one may “take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import” an eagle, part of an eagle, or anything from its nest. This includes the eagle itself, dead or alive, feathers, eggs, and their nests. 

It’s important to understand how the act defines “take”. Within the boundaries of the act, “take” can refer to anything that disturbs or harms the bird. This includes obviously harmful actions like shooting, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, or trapping. I any of these occur on accident, it is still a violation of the law. Even less harmful disturbances, such as getting too close to their nests, is illegal. This is because repeated agitations can cause bald eagles and golden eagles to abandon their nests, which can harm the population. 

Fines and Consequences 

All violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protections Act are treated equally. This means that taking a feather is treated the same as injurying a bald eagle. 

The first time a violation occurs, offenders face a fine of $100,000, one year of prison, or both. Organizations who violate the act face a steeper fine of $200,000. After the first offense, the penalties for violation will increase, and a second violation is considered a felony. 

Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was first established in 1918. It was part of a series of treaties and conventions with nearby countries as a method of protecting the species of birds that migrate in the western hemisphere and surrounding areas. 

In terms of language, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is extremely similar to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This is because the MBTA is designed to prevent human distubances to vulnerable species, even if these species aren’t necessarily endangered or threatened. 

However, there is one main difference between these two acts. While the first only protects bald eagles and golden eagles, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects around 836 different species of birds. 

Violations of the MBTA can occur in two different forms: as a misdemeanor and as a felony. For misdemeanors, individuals face a maximum fine of $5000 and a maximum sentence of six months. For a felony offense, these penalties are raised to a fine of $250,000 and a sentence of up to two years. Additionally, all items and pieces of personal property used during the disturbance can be confiscated by the government. This can include everything from traps to the vehicle driven to reach the site the bird was found. 

Previous Laws Protecting Eagles

close up of a bald eagle
While the species was endangered, they received special protections.

©iStock.com/R Lolli Morrow

Until 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had bald eagles listed as a federally endangered species. While the species was featured in this categorization, bald eagles received special protections that are extended to all endangered animals. 

Can I keep an Eagle Feather I found?

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prevents you from taking any part of these beautiful birds or anything from their nest. Since feathers are a part of the eagle, this means that you shouldn’t take or keep one, even if you find it in your yard or while hiking. Even if you were not the one to take the feather, having it in your possession is illegal. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act also protects against this. 

The only people allowed to have eagle feathers in their possession are those with the proper permits stating they use them for religious reasons. Typically, these feathers must be obtained through the National Eagle Repository. 

Why Are Eagles Federally Protected?

When protections were first put in place, the bald eagle was at risk of going extinct. Golden eagles were later included in this as a way to further protect bald eagles, as young bald eagles and young golden eagles can look similar.

However, eagles aren’t the only birds that are federally protected. All birds that migrate, from ducks to certain songbirds, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law protects over 800 species of birds through the United States federal government. 

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Bald Eagle flying over a lake.
Bald Eagle flying over a lake.ac
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About the Author

I'm a writer with almost five years of experience. I recently graduated from Wingate University with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a double minor in biology and professional and technical writing. I love everything animals and nature related! The American kestrel is my favorite animal, but I also like sharks and alligators. In my free time, I like to watch documentaries and explore nature.

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