9 Migratory Bird Laws You Didn’t Know
A Q&A with a former duck guide, who broke migratory bird laws, and is trying to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes
EDITOR’s NOTE: The following information is based on federal law. Be sure to check with state agencies to make sure you are in compliance with state law.
Ryan Warden became an expert on migratory gamebird regulations in 2011 after federal agents raided his Kansas duck lodge. He was later accused of breaking migratory bird laws—27 counts in total. Since Warden was an outfitter (taking money to take people hunting) each count was a felony. In the end, he avoided jail time and plead guilty to three misdemeanors: shooting one bird over his dove limit, shooting from a truck bed (he was sitting on the tailgate and you must have both feet on the ground to discharge a firearm), and not properly tagging his doves. Warden paid around $30,000 in fines and legal fees and was not allowed to hunt, fish, or trap in the U.S. for five years. He admits wrongdoing, but there were many rules he didn’t know. To assist the average hunter, he started a company called Toe Tags, LLC that helps hunters stay legal with proper tags, log books, and any other items you need when transporting, donating, or storing harvested waterfowl.
After spending countless hours trying to understand migratory gamebird laws during a federal investigation, he found several of the regulations confusing and realized many waterfowlers are unknowingly breaking game laws. He’s doing his best to keep them informed, so they don’t make the same mistakes he did.
Outdoor Life: What are some of the common missteps duck hunters make when they drive into the field or walk into a marsh?
Ryan Warden: Well, the first thing you said “driving into the field” that’s trouble right there. Say you drive the truck into a cornfield (like all of us do), if your tire rolls over a head of corn and busts it open and the kernels fall off the cob onto the ground…that can be considered baiting or field manipulation. I know that seems ridiculous, but it’s a mistake just about everyone makes. Are you going to get in trouble for that? Maybe, maybe not.
If you wade into a flooded cornfield and knock corn off the stalk into the water on accident, that’s also baiting. If the dog goes out to retrieve a duck in flooded millet and knocks heads off the stems, it’s baiting, because that dog is under your control and you are liable for it. If you run a boat in a marsh and the wake causes any feed to dislodge from the plant and into the water, it’s baiting.
OL: Party hunting is always an issue in waterfowl hunting. How do we avoid it?
RW: The first way is to never hunt in large groups, so you always know which birds you shot. That said, if you’re hunting with a bunch of guys and birds come in, and you all shoot, there should be one hunter that goes out in front of the blinds and runs the dog. As the dog brings each bird back the handler asks “who shot this bird?” One person claims that bird and you keep going until all the ducks are accounted for. Don’t pile them up behind the blind like many of us do. Put ducks right on a bird strap or separated behind each individual hunter, that way if you get checked in the field, the game warden can see exactly how many birds belong to you.
OL: After a hunt is over, there’s typically a pile picture. Anything wrong with that?
RW: There’s nothing wrong with it as long your birds are separated and you can identify them. The problem is a lot of times we just pile all the birds together on top of one another. That goes against possession laws because you don’t know which birds are yours. If guys place their birds in front of them and leave a space between their pile and the next persons, then it’s all good. Or, if you tag birds properly and pile them up, that’s OK too, because it’s clear which ducks belong to each hunter.
Another thing that trips hunters up after a shoot is one guy will go back to get the truck and leave his birds in the field or blind. That’s illegal. You have to take those birds with you. You cannot leave the birds in the field (tagged or not) because the birds have not been taken to their primary means of transportation, which is typically the vehicle you drove in to the hunt. Also, if you drive to the boat ramp in a truck and take a boat out to the blind, the truck is still your primary means of transportation. So anytime you go back to the boat ramp in the boat, maybe to pick up a buddy who came late, any birds you shot must go in the boat with you.
OL: What about when you are hunting snow geese during the spring conservation season? How do you know who shot what bird when so many shooters are in the field? Do we have to keep limits separate?
RW: I asked that same question to the feds and the response I got was “you better know who shot each bird.” That’s kind of a tough one to navigate because the USFWS created that season to control the population of snow geese, but it could also land you in hot water because it’s near impossible not to party hunt them. You’re talking about huge wads of birds and multiple shooters in most cases. And yes, you have to keep limits separate no matter if you shoot five birds or 300—the same rules apply as in the regular season.
If you have a great shoot and someone goes to get the truck and leaves their birds in the field, that’s a violation. Also, if you pile all the geese into the back of an ATV to drive back to the trucks, that’s illegal because it’s not the primary means of transportation. The way to stay legal is to have one guy take his birds to the truck, drive it into the field, and pick everyone else and their birds up. It’s smart to tag birds at this point, especially if it was a big shoot. There’s virtually no way to identify the geese you shot when there are dozens or hundreds of dead birds unless they are properly tagged. If someone in the group accidentally or purposely shot lead shells, a game warden could fine the entire group for that illegal act if the geese were not tagged properly because there is no way to tell which birds belong to each individual hunter. So everyone is guilty. But in that scenario, if you can show the warden possession, he or she can’t find you in violation if there is no lead shot in your birds.
OL: So what information needs to be on a tag for a hunter to be legal?
RW: I actually have made it easy for hunters with Toe Tags. A lot of outfitters are using them now to keep it legal. You need to fill in your name, date, address, license number, bird species and quantity, the county the birds were shot in and sign it. We also make gift tags too, so you stay legal when donating birds.
OL: After a hunt, many of us go eat a greasy breakfast at a diner. I know that’s a time hunters will make a mistake.
RW: As long as every hunter properly tags his or her birds, you can put as many limits in one vehicle as needed. The hiccup comes when all the hunters just throw birds into the bed of the truck and go to the diner in multiple vehicles. It’s illegal to transport those untagged birds because all the hunters are separated from them. If all the hunters are in the truck and the birds are in separate piles and each hunter knows which pile belongs to them, you are legal. But that rarely happens. Say you have a 10-man limit of lesser Canada geese in the truck here in Kansas. That’s 60 birds. As long as each limit is tagged properly, the hunters in the truck with the birds are legal, even if it’s only the driver and a passenger. I don’t recommend hauling 10 limits around because you’re only going to attract unwanted attention, but is legal.
Also, if you are hunting at a lodge and they have a bird board to hang up limits with bird straps for a photo, don’t leave those birds on the board and go inside to eat breakfast without properly tagging them. Once you have left the birds without tags, they are no longer in your possession and you are in violation.
OL: Possession laws can be confusing. I’ve been told that as soon as you breast out ducks they no longer count towards a possession limit?
RW: Nope. As long as the meat is still in your possession (home, lodge, hotel, etc.), it counts towards your possession limit. So if you grind up a bunch of goose meat into sausage or sticks, and put it in the freezer, that technically still counts towards your possession limit. Now, say you have a wife and two kids at home. You can gift that meat to them (they don’t need a hunting license) by simply filling out a gift tag and attaching it to the birds, but it still counts towards their possession limit. And one of the curios things about possession is once you get the birds home, you can pretty much do what you want with the meat. I won’t go into all those things because I think the birds should be utilized for the great resource they are, but there are some folks that just discard the meat. In most cases it is legal as long as you do it at your own residence.
You can actually ship birds too if they are properly tagged. If you want to donate a limit to your sister, but she lives in a different state, it’s perfectly legal to tag the birds, put them in dry ice and overnight the package to her. You wouldn’t think that would be legal with all the different regulations, but it is.
OL: What if we are hunting with a guide and want to donate our birds?
RW: You have to be careful there, because legally you can only donate birds to someone at their home or your home or through a processor. So if a guide says, “I’ve got a buddy who will take those at the gas station,” and he takes your birds, drives to the 7-Eleven and drops them off to his friend, that’s illegal. You have to physically take your ducks to that “buddy” at his home. You (nor the guide) can go down to the gas station and donate the birds.
Outfitters can take gifted birds to be delivered or shipped to another person if they are a migratory gamebird processing facility. Which means they must receive the birds properly tagged, keep records in a log book (Toe Tags sells them), and that log book cannot be destroyed for a year once the last entry has been made. Once you drop the birds off at a processor and arrange for them to be gifted, they are no longer part of your possession limit. But a word of caution: If you are only storing birds in someone else’s freezer, they must be tagged and still count towards your possession limit.
I recommend all outfitters be processors (check with your state agency to ensure you are compliant), then they can legally donate any bird their clients gift. If you are the client and want to gift birds, ask to see the log book. If the guide looks at you like you’re nuts, keep the birds in your possession.
OL: Is there anything else we should know about migratory gamebird laws?
RW: There are many rules that can trip you up, but I guess the one thing you would think goes without saying, but I’ve seen it be a problem is: kill cripples as fast and humane as you can. Make sure they are dead. It’s illegal not to dispatch birds as quickly as possible. So if you thought a bird was dead, but suddenly it’s not, you need to take care of it NOW. It’s inhumane and a violation not to.