Responsible Collecting for Nature Journalists

Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sipping salts from human skin.
Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sipping salts from human skin.

Collecting pine cones, leaves and other items are a natural part of being a naturalist. When we go for nature walks,  we often pick up something interesting. Sometimes we put it in our pockets. Later we draw or paint it in our nature journals.

There was a time in U.S. history when various species were gathered to the point of near extinction. Amateur and professional naturalists amassed bird’s eggs, animal skins, skulls, bird parts, and other materials. Often many of one kind.

There were people who had vast specimen accumulations to the point there were more specimens in drawers and boxes than in the outdoors.

The days of the large personal hoards are over. There is no longer a legitimate reason to amass a large number of specimens.

In natural areas such as refugees, state and national parks, all gathering is absolutely forbidden.  The motto in these places is: “Take only photos, leave only footprints”.

Special permits are required by law if you obtain certain items.

Taking any part of a bird, including eggshells, feathers, and nests, of migratory birds without a license is forbidden in the United States.

All legitimate collectors must apply for permits and deposit their objects in museums. Permits are available from state game and federal agencies such as the USDA.

Professional scientists who are required to gather specimens for their job must deposit what they gather with their employer.

People who take dig up native plants to put in their gardens or to sell have so harmed the native plant populations, that some plants are becoming rare or extinct. And the people who visit these places after illegal collectors, have been robbed of the opportunity to see the flowers or plants. Besides, native plants are easily bought as seeds or plants from nurseries and nature center plant sales.

I rarely collect specimens anymore unless I will be drawing them.

I tend to take photographs instead. My computer’s photo catalog serves the same purpose as a specimen organizer or catalog in the Grinnell System.

I add the location, keywords, and identification in the notes just like I would for a specimen label.

I gather items only on city streets and in my own backyard.

When I do pick up items, it is what has fallen to the ground: dead insects, pine cones, or leaves. I basically take plants from my own backyard. I don’t have to worry about doing something illegal or inconsiderate.

You can gather items without harming the ecology of an area. Take photographs. Make sketches. Gather a group of objects, photograph them or make sketches and then don’t take the group home. Leave it at the location. Practice good outdoor manners.

If I take something home to sketch or draw I often return it back to the same spot when I am finished. This is the safest way to do it.

What is relatively safe to collect?

Generally what is already dead or fallen or bad for the environment.

Before you pick it up, ask yourself:

  • Is it dead?
  • Was it lying on the ground?
  • Is it an endangered species?
  • Do I really need to pick this up?
  • Will a photograph be just as good or better?
  • Will one or two specimens may be enough for my needs?

Pick up along city/suburban streets:

  • pine cones
  • seeds and seed of common trees and plants
  • invasive plant and animal species – collect as much as you want, you would be doing the natural ecosystems a favor
  • non-native species (ditto, above)
  • leaves
  • fallen twigs and branches
  • rocks
  • dead insects – I find dead butterflies, beetles and flies all the time
  • plaster casts of tracks
  • shed snake skins and insects exoskeletons
  • bark – you can make rubbings instead of collecting
  • and other dead items I didn’t list

Don’t Collect

  • feathers of migratory birds – it is illegal to keep them
  • nest or eggs (even at the end of breeding season)
  • fossils, rocks, and minerals (in public lands)
  • leaves of plants (trees, shrubs, flowers)in a park, arboretum, or other public natural areas

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