Monday, August 15, 2016

Celebrating the Centennial! 100 years of Bird Conservation

On this date in 1916, the first Migratory Bird Act was signed between the United States
and Canada, serving as the catalyst for a century of bird conservation actions. At the turn of the twentieth century, bird populations were in peril as a result of unregulated shooting for the food and fashion industries. Recognizing the need for collaboration to protect species that traverse their borders, partners in the United States and Canada drafted an agreement to cooperatively manage and protect birds that migrate internationally. The act was the first international agreement forged to protect wild birds, and among the first to protect any wildlife species.

Mom and Dad Decorah don't migrate, but many of the birds we watch do! D1 went to Canada for the summer, while many of Eagle Valley's eagles visit the United States for the winter. North American peregrine falcons have been reported on oil rigs in the Gulf Coast (Candace W/Z, a bird that Bob banded), Chile (the incredible Island Girl), and Costa Rica (the lovely Inmaculada), just to name a few. As Scott Weidensaul says: "At whatever moment you read these words, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies of the Western Hemisphere, migrating. If it is spring or fall, the great pivot points of the year, then the continents are swarming with billions of traveling birds..."

It is August 15th. Grasshoppers are leaping, goldenrod is blooming, indigo buntings are visiting my feeders, and some of the birds that summer in Minnesota and parts north will begin migrating soon. A great tide of birds will wash down from the north, moving down the Mississippi river towards the southern US, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. They will fly over cities, counties, states, provinces, precincts, districts, and nations - a patchwork of histories, languages, cultures, religions, economies, shared experiences, and beliefs - with no passport or knowledge of boundaries other than those imposed by landscape and weather. What has that tiny indigo bunting at my feeder seen? How many miles have passed beneath its wings? What is it like to be an artic tern, which flies about 44,000 miles per year and experiences nearly perpetual daylight as it travels from Greenland to Antarctica and back again? What pulled D1 north 920 miles to Hudson's Bay every summer and what did it feel like when the fishhook of dispersal started tugging her away from the only world she had ever known?

There are a lot of reasons that birds are important. They connect people with nature, which gives us a reason to preserve the landscapes they need. They contribute important environmental benefits, including insect and rodent control, pollination, and seed dispersal. They are an important part of our economy, generating about $500 million annually in direct hunting revenue in my home state of Minnesota alone - and that doesn't count the money spent by birds, bird banders, and people who attend birding festivals. But to me, the most fascinating part of birds will always be their mystery. I am grateful for the window into their world that technology has given us, and for treaties like the Migratory Bird Act to help protect them as they wing their way through our world.

A brief history of three Acts that protect Bald Eagles
The ornamental plume trade provided the catalyst for two of the three Acts that protect bald eagles. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hats decorated with plumes and other bird parts were a must-have for fashionable ladies. How bad was the plume trade? In February 1886, a young New York ornithologist named Frank Chapman set out on expedition to uptown Manhattan, counting the number of ladies' hats adorned with feathers and other bird parts. Over the course of two trips, Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their disembodied parts. In Chapman’s assessment forty different bird species were represented in his count. As Lapham's Quarterly pointed out, this made uptown Manhattan one of the most diverse bird-watching territories in the world. It is estimated that over 5,000,000 birds were being killed annually to decorate hats and clothing.

Hats decorated with ornamental plumes were a must-have for fashionable ladies! 
Woman wearing a "Chanticleer" hat 
made of bird feathers, circa 1912.
Opera singer Emmy Destinn 
wearing a plume-covered hat, around 1909.

The Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act were passed largely to regulate and combat the ornamental plume trade, which decimated bird populations and drove a number of species to extinction. The Lacey Act, passed in 1900, was the first federal law protecting wildlife. It prohibited market hunters from selling poached game across state lines and was designed in part to stop the flow of feathers from the American countryside to the great millinery centers of New York and London. Iowa fans can be especially proud, since the Act was introduced by Iowa Congressman John Lacey.

The Migratory Bird Act was a landmark agreement signed by the United States and Great Britain in 1916 with the goal of 'preserving those species considered beneficial or harmless to man'. Like the Lacey Act, it provided a tool to limit the extensive ornamental feather trade and the unregulated shooting of birds. Both the US and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada, which was part of the British Empire) realized that international treaties were necessary to protect animals with no international boundaries. The two countries agreed to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds.

The Migratory Bird Act agreement was implemented two years later with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The act established penalties for people who broke the law, making it a crime to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell a migratory bird or any of its parts, including nests, eggs, and feathers. This effectively shut down the ornamental feather trade and gave species like the snowy egret a change to rebound.

Breeding plumage: Far better on the snowy egret!
By Len Blumin from Mill Valley, California, United States (Snowy Egret display) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
While bald eagles were covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, they hadn't been directly affected by plume hunting. But sport shooting, bounty hunting, and habitat loss were another matter. The Bald Eagle Protection Act was enacted by Congress in 1940 to protect the bald eagle from direct hunting and habitat encroachment. As the territory of Alaska demonstrates, we haven't always admired bald eagles. Between 1917 and 1952, 128,273 bald eagles were killed and submitted to the Alaska Territorial Treasurer for bounty. We have no figures for the amount that were simply killed offhand or to provide feathers and parts for the trade in "authentic" Native American artifacts, but Congress felt that an act was needed to protect the bald eagle from extinction. The Golden eagle was added in 1962, amending the law to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While there are many complicated issues around the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (consider the controversial proposed bald and golden eagle take proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service) it has saved millions if not billions of birds since the initial treaty was signed in 1916. Let's celebrate the act and keep moving forward to save birds for the next 100 years! Migratory birds need our help: as Steve Holmer, Senior Policy Advisor for the American Bird Conservancy, pointed out: "Forty percent of all migratory bird species are in decline, so it is urgent that we put in place practices we already know will save birds from needless deaths.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a long list of important conservation messages. I chose my favorite ones to post here! Remember, times change, and threats change with them.

What is the main threat to migratory birds? 
  • Habitat loss due to urban development, agriculture and other human activities is the main threat to migrating birds. [Note: 'other human activities' is probably referring to global climate change].
  • Migratory birds depend on suitable breeding and wintering grounds and stopover sites where they can rest and feed along their migratory routes. The loss of any sites used by the birds during their annual life cycle could have a dramatic impact on their chances of survival.
What can we do about it? 
  • Conserve habitat - conservation works! Where we have invested in healthy habitats, birds are doing well. Healthy birds mean healthy forests, wetlands, grasslands, shorelines and oceans [and healthy forests, wetlands, grasslands, shorelines, and oceans mean healthy birds].
  • By conserving birds we conserve our American landscapes and the economies and ways of life that depend on them. From farmers and ranchers to outdoor recreationists to children, we all benefit when birds thrive.
#birdyear #thenext100years