Volume 18, Issue 4
Look outside right now. More than likely, some sort of bird crossed your line of sight. Maybe it was a cardinal or a robin scouring the earth for something to eat. Maybe it was a vulture souring through the sky. Or maybe you did not see the bird, but you could hear it chattering away in its own foreign language. Regardless, birds are everywhere, so everyone can appreciate a piece of legislation passed now 100 years ago that allowed for the conservation of birds to be better recognized: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
In 1916, the United States and Canada battled the dwindling numbers of waterfowl and game species by signing the Migratory Bird Treaty. By establishing hunting seasons for game birds and eliminating hunting of insectivorous birds, both countries officially recognized the importance of these creatures who were being adversely affected by unregulated hunting. After the loss of the Labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), and passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), the need for these actions was more than relevant. Moreover, it seemed many other species would soon be following in the footsteps of these once common species. Flash forward two years, and this treaty became law. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, migratory birds no longer could be harmed, killed, or sold, and this included their nests and eggs. Additionally, the first federal hunting seasons were established, as well as federal authority to manage migratory birds.
Now, this new act was met with opposition. In those days, scientists studied birds by shooting them and then studying them without thinking how this might upset population or ecosystem dynamics. How would scientists study birds if they could not kill them first? Additionally, hunting was a popular sport across America (as it still is today), and designating times of the year when people were and were not allowed to hunt certain species did not only seem absurd, but it also seemed to be just another example of government intrusion on Americans’ lives.
But the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was a necessary act to preserve the birds of America, and although passed now 100 years ago, the Act is far from archaic. Today, the Act continues to positively influence bird populations. For example, the Act has helped preserve endangered puffins by designating a habitat for them south of Cape Cod as Maine’s puffins face habitat destruction. Additionally, 1.8 million acres of Californian desert was set aside under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to preserve over 250 species of birds, including the Elf Owl and Least Bell’s Vireo.
But what is the point? Why is it so important for Americans to celebrate such an act? Further, why are birds so important? Why should we go the extra mile to protect the cardinal or the hawk outside your window right now?
Most simply, birds are a crucial part of our ecosystems, of our food webs. As birds are eliminated from the food web, any insects or other small animals that they eat will increase dramatically in biomass. Additionally, anything that eats a bird will be wiped out. Without birds, our ecosystem will have no stability, as they form all parts of food webs, from higher level consumers like hawks and owls to decomposers like vultures.
Perhaps an even more tragic result of losing birds would be the loss of such beautiful details in our world. A sky without a bird is like a voice without words. Birds are inimitable creatures from their specialized beaks that Darwin found so fascinating to their vast array of plumage colors.
Many institutions, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, are deeming 2018 the “Year of the Bird,” but perhaps the true year of the bird was 100 years ago when lawmakers decided birds truly are worth protecting.
Franzen, Jonathan. “Why Birds Matter and are Worth Protecting.” National Geographic. National Geographic, January 2018. Web. 9 January 2018.
Imbler, Sabrina. “A Hundred Year Legacy: The Modern Role of the Migratory Bird Treaty.” Audubon. Audubon, 16 August 2016. Web. 9 January 2018.
Mehlman, David. “Safe Flight: 100 Years of Protecting Birds.” Nature Conservancy. Nature Conservancy, December 2016. Web. 9 January 2018.
Ronis, Emily. “Migratory Bird Treaty Turns 100 Today.” Wildlife Society. Wildlife Society, 16 August 2016. Web. 9 January 2018.