100 years of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

You’ll never see a heath hen, Labrador duck or great auk. These migratory birds went extinct by the early 1900s. Even the passenger pigeon, once plentiful in North America, saw its numbers dwindle as people overhunted it. The once abundant species went extinct in 1914 when the last of its kind died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Wood ducks and snowy egrets almost disappeared as well, but thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, their numbers have rebounded. There are now millions of wood ducks and more than 140,000 snowy egrets in North America.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States and Canada signing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It was one of the first pieces of environmental legislation designed specifically to help birds and led the way for later laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, which also addressed major threats to birds.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act addressed the biggest, most immediate threat to our birds at the time: overharvesting. However, one of its lasting accomplishments was simply making people in North America think about how our birds are doing.
A century later while we celebrate the treaty’s accomplishments and the birds it’s benefited, we should still be asking this question as we try to understand the biggest threats birds face today and how we can help them thrive.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, feathers were en vogue, used for creating entire dresses and hats in the United States. The booming plume trade lasted for decades, causing birds to be overharvested to the brink of extinction. Americans started to see a marked decrease in the numbers of birds like wood ducks, snowy egrets and willets and more than 40 other North American species. Plume hunters killed nearly 95 percent of Florida’s shore birds.
Various public campaigns tried to make feather fashion a faux pas. Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900, encouraged people to switch from shooting as many birds as possible in a day to recording the greatest number of bird species seen. Yet these efforts weren’t enough.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal for “anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.”
Birds still need help
A century later we can tout the successes of the act, as well as other laws like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, raised more than $4 billion for 30 million acres of wetland conservation projects in the past 20 years, but certain bird species are still struggling.
According to The State of North America’s Birds 2016 report, the last half century has seen a severe decline in quality habitat and 37 percent of North American bird species are “of high conservation concern and at risk.” Seabirds, waterbirds and neotropical migrants have seen huge population crashes over the past 50 years, despite benefiting from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, mostly due to habitat loss. Marine ecosystems are in crisis, tropical forests are disappearing and rising sea levels threaten coastslines.
Federal laws, like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, need to be adjusted and viewed in conjunction with national and international habitat protection efforts. Management of whooping cranes, an endangered species, exemplifies this.
Despite the protections afforded under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the whooping crane population crashed to fewer than 30 birds by the 1940s due to habitat loss. The species narrowly escaped extinction and is still very much at risk with population estimates around 600. For these birds, habitat protection was, and still is, needed in addition to federal laws. The establishment of a national park in Canada and the Texas’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the early part of the 20th century helped keep the birds from complete extinction.
Even after 100 years of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there are still stories like this that need to be told, in addition to the success stories of the law. ♦
[box size=”large” border=”full”]
Tell the story

  • Make it personal. Find someone who can tell their personal story about helping birds. Emotion and the human element are the ever-important “spoon – ful of sugar” for stories about policy and natural resources management. When your audience sees how birds or bird conservation have inspired someone else, they are more likely to empathize and digest the meaning of the story.
  • Make it local. Depending on your outlet, focus on a bird or a destination in the region that inspires people. Recommend popular parks or public lands where people can go to see the birds you write about. Talk to local experts, from state bird biologists to area Audubon members.
  • Make it actionable. When some – one can see how they fit into the big picture of conservation, they are more likely to be motivated to get involved. Tell readers about local groups they can join, a law they can vote on or a change they can make in their own backyard, like planting native plants.

— Ashley Peters joined OWAA in 2014. She is the communications manager for Audubon Minnesota. For nearly a decade, she has worked to communicate and advocate for environmental conservation. She can be contacted at apeters@audubon.org.

Scroll to Top