Last year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of an environmental law that had sweeping consequences for our bird populations: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. And while it’s a mouthful of a name, the MBTA was a huge win for birds during a very dangerous time for them and helped develop the foundation for avian conservation laws in the years to come, many of which we still use today.
Shortly after the American Civil War, a new fashion craze swept the nation: bird feathers adorning hats. The millinery business was making a killing off feathered hats and as the demand for these feathers rose, people were eager to provide. Countless bird species became victims of feather hunting, however not all feathers were equally prized. Long, elaborate plume feathers were highly coveted by milliners and the birds that possessed these feathers were hit particularly hard: namely the snowy egret and great egret.
*Frantz Delcroix/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML62050261)
These wading birds develop beautiful plume feathers during the breeding season and these birds will aggregate into colonies. These colonies will typically be in trees throughout wetlands, preferring to stay close together for protection. For plume hunters this was ideal: their target species would concentrate themselves allowing for mass killings of egrets all at once. Unfortunately, this would mean that not only were the adult birds were killed, but the eggs or hatchlings in these colonies would also fail.
However, it wasn’t just egrets whose numbers were devastated. Songbirds, seabirds, waterfowl, and every other family were being hunted to dangerously low numbers for meat as well as feathers. One activist reported seeing over 2,600 American Robins in a single market stall in Washington DC in the late 19th century. During this same time, the American Ornithologists’ Union estimated that over 5 million birds were being killed per year for the fashion industry.
Famously, what later became the National Audubon Society would make their logo the Great Egret to honor the birds that were slaughtered for fashion. It was through the efforts of many individuals and groups, as well as with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed into law. This law made the pursuit, hunting, taking, killing, or selling of migratory birds illegal in the United States and Canada (as well as other countries that partnered later such as Mexico, Japan, and Russia). This includes anything bird related like feathers, eggs, and nests.
*Darren Clark/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML45292901)
A decade later, President Herbert Hoover took migratory bird conservation a step further creating the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 which authorized the acquisition and preservation of wetlands for migratory birds, namely waterfowl. This law had good intentions by providing protections, however it did not provide any consistent way to fund these protections. And in 1934, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which would eventually become known as the Duck Stamp Act, was enacted to do just that.
The Duck Stamp Act required all waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and over must annually buy and carry a Federal Duck Stamp. 98 cents of every dollar spent on a Federal Duck Stamp goes directly into the Migratory Conservation Fund to purchase or lease wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since the Duck Stamp Act’s enactment, around $800 million has gone into the fund and has protected more than 5.7 million acres of habitat.
*Alix d’Entremont/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML51350921)
It is because of conservation laws like the MBTA and the Duck Stamp Act that we have seen recoveries in bird numbers since the days of plume hunting. However, not all birds have been able to make the same great recoveries as others. Just this year a paper was published showing that just since the 1970’s bird populations have lost almost 3 billion breeding birds (https://www.3billionbirds.org/). Some of this is due to habitat loss and habitat degradation, but also billions of birds are killed by cats and millions are killed by window collisions annually.
What is a glimmer of hope, however, is that while birds as a whole have dramatically lost numbers, waterfowl in particular have had an increase of 35 million breeding birds. This has been attributed in large part due to the massive amount of conservation and funding going to these birds through things like the Duck Stamp Act. It goes to show that there are ways to help these birds that are in need of our assistance.
There are many things you can do at home to help your local and migratory birds, but the easiest and one of the best things to do is to keep your cat indoors. Letting a non-native predator species loose anywhere will cause problems, and by keeping yours indoors you could be saving countless birds annually. Additionally, if you have a garden, try filling it with as many native plants as you can! Native plants not only provide nectar and seeds for native birds, but the insects that are dependent on those types of plants can also be invaluable sources of energy for birds. And lastly, even if you’re not a duck hunter, purchasing a Federal Duck Stamp is a way to give money to a conservation effort that has shown successful results. Also, they work to get you into National Wildlife Refuges without having to pay!
*Dorian Anderson/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML50384441)