By Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
Migratory birds play a critical role in our ecosystems. They pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and eat insects, acting as a natural control of garden and agricultural pests and rodents. In order to protect migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)1 was implemented on July 3, 1918. It has been amended several times since its inception.
Besides America’s most endangered birds like the ivory-billed woodpecker, California condor, and whooping crane, many of our common backyard birds—northern cardinal, black-capped chickadee, mourning dove, house finch, American goldfinch, common grackle, ruby-throated hummingbird, blue jay, dark-eyed junco, Baltimore oriole, American robin, tufted titmouse, cedar waxwing, downy woodpecker, and house wren—have protected status.2
In recognition of MBTA’s success in saving the lives of countless birds, its centennial anniversary has prompted organizations like National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International to designate 2018 as the Year of the Bird. Teaming together with more than 150 organizations, they will share information on how our changing environment affects birds and how we can “commit to protecting birds today,” with specific actions that you can take each month, “and for the next hundred years.”3
The MBTA is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the snowy egret, wood duck, and sandhill crane. “In 1886, [snowy egret] plumes were valued at an astounding $32 per ounce” ($819 today adjusted for inflation).4 As a result of over-hunting, snowy egrets disappeared from many states by the late 19th century. Passage of the MBTA allowed snowy egret populations to recover.
Today, the primary threats birds face are not from poachers or hunters, but from human development and innovation, and its by-products.
For example, it is estimated5 that every year:
- Up to 1 million birds are killed in uncovered oil pits and evaporation ponds.
- Millions of birds die when they collide with unmarked power lines.
- An estimated 6 million birds die from exhaustion when they circle communications towers with steady-burning red lights, or when they collide with the towers or their wires.
- Collisions with buildings kill between 365 million and 988 million birds in the U.S.6 (An estimated 36 percent of deaths at residences occurred on properties with bird feeders. Learn why birdfeeders can pose a hazard and how you can make your property more bird friendly.)
To protect birds and prevent incidental deaths, the MBTA has encouraged companies, who are held liable, to work with conservation and government entities to devise simple, often inexpensive solutions: covering oil waste pits, which birds mistake for water, with nets; making power lines more visible with string balls and other markers; converting the mesmerizing, constant red lights on communications towers to flashing lights; and dimming or turning lights out on glass buildings at night, especially during migration season. Where bird deaths are difficult to determine, as with wind turbines, planning is everything, and comprehensive guidelines for siting and developing wind farms are being developed.
Despite being effective and an impetus for common-sense solutions for one hundred years, the MBTA is now under assault. On May 24, 2018 a coalition of national environmental groups filed litigation in the Southern District of New York to prevent the Trump administration from weakening the MBTA and removing accountability for preventable bird deaths.9
Footnotes and References:
- 16 USC 703-712 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. https://www.fws.gov/le/USStatutes/MBTA.pdf
Specific provisions in the statute include: establishment of a Federal prohibition, unless permitted by regulations, to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” (16 U.S.C. 703)
- List of Migratory Bird Species Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as of December 2, 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/pdf/policies-and-regulations/ListofMBTAProtectedSpecies1312.pdf
- Year of the Bird. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird
Monthly action topics for the first six months were: January: Take the Pledge; February: Great Backyard Bird Count; March: Native Plants; April: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; May: Global Big Day; and June: Planet or Plastic. Visit the Web site to discover July’s action topic.
- Snowy Egret. Birds of North America. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/snoegr/introduction
- Waters, Hannah. February 23, 2018. “Saving Birds From Deadly Industrial Traps Isn’t Hard.” Audubon. https://www.audubon.org/news/saving-birds-deadly-industrial-traps-isnt-hard
- Loss, Scott R., Tom Will, Sara S. Loss, and Peter P. Marra. 2014. “Bird–building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability.” The Condor, 116(1):8-23. Cooper Ornithological Society. http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1
- Mississippi Sandhill Crane. Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Mississippi_Sandhill_Crane/wildlife_and_habitat/crane_biology.html
- Hutchins, Michael. April 8, 2017. Wind Energy and Bird FAQ—Part 1: Understanding the Threats. American Bird Conservancy. https://abcbirds.org/wind-energy-threatens-birds/
- National Audubon Society. May 24, 2018. Audubon Lawsuit Seeks to Restore Protections for Migratory Birds. https://www.audubon.org/news/audubon-lawsuit-seeks-restore-protections-migratory-birds