1916 Migratory Bird Treaty: a centennial anniversary of progress

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the historic Migratory Bird Treaty. Environmentalists find much to celebrate, but challenges remain for migratory bird populations.

Rebecca Swiller/The Christian Science Monitor
Snowy egret wades in the shallows on the Shark Valley Trail.

The Migratory Bird Treaty will reach its centennial anniversary this year, leading many wildlife experts and organizations to reflect on its international success. 

Signed in 1916 between the US and Great Britian (acting on behalf of Canada), the  Migratory Bird Treaty is the first major US legislation that protects birds that migrate across international borders. The two countries agreed to stop hunting all insectivorous birds, such as bluebirds and hummingbirds, and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds.    

To better enforce the Treaty, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in 1918, declaring it “unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export or transport any migratory bird,” as well as any nest or eggs belonging to such birds, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) explains. 

The MBTA passage two years later is integral for the Migratory Bird Treaty’s success in the US because it eliminates “the necessity of watching the legislation of every state and of combining the numberless attempts to legalize the destruction of birds for private gain,” said notable ornithologist and founder of the Audubon magazine Frank Chapman. 

The story of the Snowy Egret is only one of many successful recoveries by the MBTA. Once hunted extensively for its feathers, the Snowy Egret was teetering towards extinction in the early 20th century before the population rebounded under the MBTA. Now experts estimate a population of 1.3 million individuals in the continental United States.

Migratory birds connect people with nature and add beauty, sound and color to our world,” Karen Cleveland, a DRN all-bird biologist, said in a Michigan DNR press release. “They provide countless opportunities for enjoyment and inspiration for birders, artists, engineers, inventors, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, and they have cultural and spiritual importance.”

Migratory birds also provide environmental benefits such as seed dispersal and pollination, and many help landowners reduce population levels of insects and rodents. Because they are so visible and easy to study across a wide range, experts say they help indicate  the overall health of ecosystems. 

Not only has the MBTA “saved millions, if not billions, of birds from depredatory human activities,” says The Audubon Society, but it also paved the way for several other international treaties to protect migratory birds. After the Treaty with Canada was drafted in 1916, similar agreements soon followed with Japan, Russia, and Mexico.

“Celebrating the centennial of the first Treaty allows us to bring together those who have contributed to its success, and to galvanize efforts to protect migratory birds for the generations to come,” USFWS said in a press release.

But the celebration will not be exclusively retrospective as migratory birds still face a number of challenges to survival.

While plumage hunting is no longer a major threat to migratory birds, the rate of avian deaths from wind turbines continues to grow. 

The USFWS estimates that 440,000 birds were killed by wine turbines in the US in 2009, and another 573,000 birds were killed in 2012.

“In 2013, the USFWS forecast that bird deaths from wind energy operations will exceed one million by 2030,” says a report by the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review. “Bird deaths at wind energy projects impact many species that are protected by the MBTA.”

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