Q: When is a dead bird in the hand worth considerably more than two in the bush? A: When that bird is a protected species--and possession and public display of any portion of its corpse is punishable by a six-figure fine.

Or so Valley sculptor Paul Stout discovered the hard way when he mistook a dead gull for a pigeon and used the bird's skeletal remains in an art piece. Last month, federal wildlife agents threatened the artist with a $250,000 fine and a six-month jail sentence if he didn't surrender the bird's remains to authorities.

Gazing thoughtfully at the disembodied bird head and wings lying on a marble coffee table in his Phoenix home, the 24-year-old ASU art student shakes his head.

"At what point," he wonders aloud, "does a dead bird become fertilizer?"
Stout began ruffling the feathers of the feds' legal eagles last month, shortly after the Tucson Museum of Art accepted one of his works as part of a juried show scheduled to open June 16. Titled "Progress Reconsidered," the sculpture is topped off by the still-feathered bird skeleton the artist found near an ASU parking garage last winter.

"I just assumed it was a pigeon," says Stout. "I really didn't give it much thought. To me, it was just a dead bird."

And because Stout had never heard of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916, he found himself in a peck of trouble.

Originally aimed at hat makers whose use of plumage was responsible for annihilating entire species, the little-known regulation was designed to protect virtually all native birds found in the United States. (Because pigeons, English sparrows and starlings are "introduced species," they are unprotected by the law. The regulation now makes it illegal to possess any protected bird--dead or alive--as well as any portion of their nests and feathers.

When Stout's sculpture arrived at the Tucson gallery, his fine-feathered corpse quickly caught the eye of museum registrar Susan Dolan. Suspecting that the bird was not an unprotected pigeon, she arranged for a UofA zoologist to pass judgment. His call? A gull. "When I saw the bird in Paul's slide, I thought we might have a problem," says Dolan, who ran into a similar problem several years ago when a representative of the Fish and Wildlife Service seized a piece featuring a dead mockingbird. "This law is very explicit. You're not allowed to have [these birds] in your possession--period. It's basically illegal just to pick up a feather."

Naively believing he could receive a waiver to display the piece, Stout decided to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque about the possibility of receiving a "wildlife holding permit"--a sanction given to museums and other educational outfits.

But Stout not only failed to qualify for the permit, the artist claims he inadvertently finked on himself, causing authorities to deliver threats of fines and jail time "if [I] didn't play ball with them."

"From the beginning, I set out to comply with the law," grouses the beleaguered sculptor. "Instead, they were threatening to fine me even if I did turn in the bird. I could have gone out and killed a pigeon, which is the last thing I want to do. Or I could have bought a bird at a pet store and killed it, too. I just wanted to get something that had died of natural causes.

"I can't even believe this is an issue," continues Stout, who drove to Tucson last weekend to replace the illicit gull skeleton with a pigeon carcass he found in the Phoenix warehouse district. "This is ridiculous."

Although it may seem nit-picking, sources at Albuquerque's Fish and Wildlife headquarters say that threats of big fines are the only way to put any teeth into the law. Kamile McKeever, a legal instruments examiner for the agency, explains that exorbitant fines and jail sentences are rarely sought, except for repeat offenders involved in commercial exploitation of protected birds.

"We simply try to get the people to stop doing what they're doing," says McKeever. "Or we try to get them legally if there's any way without making the law useless."

Paul Stout, meanwhile, contends that that law is pretty useless, anyway. Defeated and eager to "come clean," he phoned McKeever's office last week and asked how he should dispose of the controversial gull carcass.

A few days later, an agent returned Stout's call. The agent's advice? Stout grimaces. "He told me I should throw it away and pretend I never had it.

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Dewey Webb