Migratory Bird Conservation
By Mark McCollough

There’s something amiss with historic Maine seascapes at the Portland Museum of Art or the Farnsworth Museum in Camden. They’re missing from N. C. Wyeth’s illustration paintings of the rugged Maine coast. You won’t see them in Winslow Homer’s famed paintings of crashing surf or fisherman returning from sea. Nor will you find them in Rockwell Kent’s abstract depictions of the cliffs of Monhegan Island. What’s missing? Seabirds.

Egrets, herons, terns, puffins, eiders, and even gulls were gone from the 1800s seascape of Maine so painters did not paint them. Island by island, feather collectors systematically shot these birds to meet the fashion demand for decor for women’s hats. Rock by rock they pilfered eggs in the spring to feed their families. (Count the number of Egg Islands on Maine maps someday.) And ledge by ledge they shot their punt guns into flocks of migrating shorebirds until the barrels were too hot to touch.

There were no laws protecting birds at that time.They were a commodity free for the taking. Robins could be purchased in public markets. The well-to-do collected bird’s eggs for display in glass cases. Bald eagles were mounted to perch forever glassy-eyed from the marble mantelpiece. What few state hunting laws were on the books in the 1800s were intended to promote the hunting of all birds.

Fortunately, a few far-thinking individuals came to the rescue. It was too late for the Labrador Duck, Heath Hen, and the Great Auk, but the National Audubon Society raised alarm to the public and Congress that something needed to be done to save our remaining birds from extinction. In 1913, bird advocates convinced Congress to pass the Weeks-McLean Act to establish federal regulation of migratory bird hunting and prohibit importation of wild bird feathers for women’s fashion.

The passing of the last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 raised a clarion call to bird advocates and the public. These birds were the most abundant land bird in North America. An estimated 3 to 5 billion darkened the skies for hours when they migrated. But they were gone forever. Two years later, in the midst of World War I, conservationists from Canada and the United States drafted an international treaty to cooperatively manage and protect birds as a shared resource. Thus, the Treaty for the Protection of Migratory Birds was signed August 16, 1916. Eventually the U. S. signed similar treaties with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972), and Russia (1976).

Simply stated, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is the law that protects birds from people. More than a thousand species are protected under the Act. The MBTA prohibits you and I to take, capture, kill, sell, purchase, import, or transport any migratory birds. It allows for some birds to be hunted, like ducks, geese, and rails.

The Act is strict. It is common knowledge that there is a law protecting birds, but did you know that you cannot even possess the feathers of a road-killed migratory bird? Nor can you collect a bird nest or egg unless authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.

Who owns wild birds? After 1916, you do, in a fashion. Wildlife, including birds, are held in public trust by state wildlife agencies and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service who protect and manage these resources on your behalf. It is our common responsibility to ensure these resources remain for generations to come.

A century after this landmark treaty was signed, we continue to seek a world where birds and people can thrive. Unfortunately, the toll of human activity on birds is staggering. The air above our heads is habitat for birds. They need an unobstructed path to migrate thousands of miles from nesting to wintering areas. It doesn’t help that brightly-lit skyscrapers attract night-migrating warblers. Whirling wind turbines reach high into the sky to intercept soaring hawks and eagles. Collisions with power lines kill 175 million birds a year. Communication towers kill another 50 million. Reflective windows on our houses kill a billion birds a year. Our cats kill another 500 million. It’s tough being a bird in the 21st century.

The Act has resulted in many conservation successes. With the help of many, terns, puffins, eiders and gulls returned to the Maine coast (and enliven our paintings and photographs!). Millions of acres of critical bird migration habitats have been protected from the Canadian arctic to Tierra del Fuego. Through sale of Federal Duck Stamps, waterfowl hunters and others have contributed more than $850 million to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund.

Birds are part of our lives and connect us to nature. From the first sighting of a bluebird in spring to the last honking of southward-bound geese, they lift our spirits. Here’s hoping that the MBTA serves us well for another century, and our children’s children will have the opportunity to revel in the joy of birds.

Mark McCollough is a wildlife biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He can be reached at ellmcc25@yahoo.com

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