Learning from the Past, Fighting for the Future

In the early 1800s, the Passenger Pigeon held the distinction of the most abundant land bird in North America—perhaps in the world—with an estimated population of 3-5 billion individuals. (That’s billion. With a “b.”)  Compare this figure to the present-day North American abundance champion, the Mourning Dove, with estimates ranging from 100-450 million. (With an “m.”)  By the mid-1800s, though, some people had begun to worry.  One state’s Senate proposed a bill to protect the Passenger Pigeon.  But a committee report stated, “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them…” 


Fast-forward fewer than 60 years. The last known Passenger Pigeon has died in captivity and the species becomes extinct.  It has fallen victim not only to naturally occurring boom-and-bust reproduction cycles but also unregulated hunting of non-game birds and a general norm of overuse of natural resources of all kinds.


If this species were the only one to have suffered at least in part due to human activities, the story would be tragic enough.  But a century ago, birds in general faced trouble. Egg collecting had grown into a popular hobby.  Ornithologists targeted (read “killed”) rare birds such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to add to their collections. Native birds including Bobolinks and Cedar Waxwings reportedly appeared as entrees on restaurant menus.  (“You want fries with that songbird?”)  Snowy Egrets and Barn Swallows were hunted almost to extinction because their long, beautiful feathers made lovely adornments for ladies’ hats.  Trumpeter Swans gave their lives not just for the millinery business but also for powder puffs (their skins) and prized writing quills (their flight feathers).  Even entire stuffed birds found a place in the millinery trade.


In 1886, Frank Chapman—a young upstart ornithologist and early officer of the National Audubon Society—took to the streets of fashionable New York City to count the number of ladies’ hats sporting feathers or other bird parts.  His final tally documented 542 hats featuring 174 whole birds or their parts.  In just that small sample, members of 40 different bird species had died for the head gear of the fashionistas.


Eventually, partners in the U.S. and Canada recognized the pressing need for collaboration to protect avian species that spanned these borders.  In 1916, politicians and advocacy groups (including the National Audubon Society) crafted an agreement to cooperatively manage and protect birds that migrate internationally—the first Migratory Bird Treaty.  In July, 1918, the U.S. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), codifying this treaty into law. The U.S. later signed similar treaties with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972), and Russia (1976).


Thankfully, it’s more fashionable these days to watch birds than to wear them. Terrible as it was, the indiscriminate slaughter of birds led to one of the U.S.’s earliest and most important environmental laws.  Stated most simply, the MBTA protects birds from people:  “…it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg of any [protected] bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior.” More than 1,000 species currently enjoy protections under the MBTA.


As one of the National Audubon Society’s first major victories, the MBTA ranks among the oldest wildlife protection laws still on the books.  As Thomas Lovejoy, the “Godfather of Biodiversity,” stated, “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the big problems in the world.”  In the years since its enactment, the MBTA has probably saved millions, if not billions, of birds from depredatory human activities.  Yet today, birds face 21st-century threats, including impacts from power lines (up to 64 million birds killed each year), cell and radio towers (7 million dead), oil waste pits (1/2 – 1 million dead), or oil spills (Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 1 million dead), just to name a few.


Now, on the eve of the MBTA’s 100th anniversary, the law faces its own new threats.  In December, 2017, the Department of the Interior (DOI) narrowed the interpretation of MBTA to not apply for “incidental take”—unintended bird deaths resulting from industrial activity.  Industries will no longer be held responsible for bird deaths as long as they aren’t found to be deliberately killing birds—basically, hunting.  This decision alters decades of previous, bipartisan interpretation of the MBTA.  No longer will activities that imperil birds and are both foreseeable and avoidable fall under this law, thereby removing any incentive for businesses to implement safeguards against potential dangers.  Yet, as more than a dozen former federal officials wrote to DOI, if Congress had meant only hunting, they would have said hunting.  Which they did not.


In this era of decreasing regulations on industries and heightened threats to wildlife of all kinds, keep the contact information of your Senators and Representatives close at hand.  Use it, early and often.  And never, never forget the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon.


Stop industries from getting a free pass to kill birds. Go to audubon.org and find
“Defend the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” Click on “Take Action.”

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