a colorful illustration of multiple species of birds
PROTECTING BIRDS: A century ago, the Migratory Bird Treaty made a real difference. Today, bird conservation work continues. © Teagan White

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Safe Flight

100 years of protecting birds

December 2016/January 2017

While millions of people in the United States now call themselves bird-watchers, our popular fascination with birds once had more to do with gunning them out of the sky than adding them to a life list. In the late 1800s, wildfowl was regularly served in both fancy restaurants and humble homes. Flamboyant plumage—and even entire stuffed birds—sprouted from the hats of fashionable women. Scientists were more concerned with collecting specimens than teasing out the delicate threads of avian ecology.

Migratory birds were especially vulnerable to hunters because they tended to congregate in large groups, making it easy to kill many at once. But as entire species such as Labrador ducks and passenger pigeons were annihilated, public opinion began turning toward revulsion. Audubon societies formed in cities across the country, newspaper headlines decried “millinery murder,” and well-to-do ladies hung up their egret-trimmed hats in favor of more humane fashions. Even some sportsmen recognized the need for restrictions to prevent their pastime from joining the ranks of the extinct.

A number of state laws aimed to curb the slaughter, but conservationists pushed for federal and international regulations. Meanwhile, commercial hunters, game dealers and gun manufacturers who profited from unfettered bird bagging formed groups to fight such laws.

In his 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life, the naturalist William T. Hornaday railed against the “game hogs” who hunted indiscriminately for fun or profit. “The idea that in order to enjoy a fine day in the open a man must kill a wheel-barrow load of birds, is a mistaken idea,” he wrote. “The Outing in the Open is the thing—not the blood-stained feathers, nasty viscera and Death in the game-bag. One quail on a fence is worth more to the world than ten in a bag.”

The other side was equally outspoken. In an attempt to block enforcement of a federal migratory bird law, Missouri Sen. James A. Reed dismissed such “maudlin” concerns, saying, “I really honestly want to know why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps, and eats tadpoles and fish and crawfish and things of that kind; why we should worry ourselves into a frenzy because some lady adorns her hat with one of its feathers, which appears to be the only use it has.”

Despite the opposition, in 1916 the United States and Canada—then still part of the British Empire—signed the Migratory Bird Treaty, which required the parties to establish limits on the hunting and trade of vulnerable species. In the United States, the result was the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, one of the country’s first major pieces of environmental legislation. The law restricted the hunting of most migratory birds during nesting and mating seasons, and the killing of certain species altogether. It also banned the taking of nests and eggs and prohibited international trade in illegally taken birds and their eggs.

SPRING/Platte River, Nebraska (below left) The wide, shallow Platte River—safe from predators and surrounded by cornfields—makes an ideal pit stop for millions of migrating birds. Among them are sandhill and whooping cranes, which come here to rest and refuel each spring on their way north to Canadian nesting grounds from the southern United States and northern Mexico. The Conservancy and its partners have preserved more than 20,000 acres of this critical habitat. Mark a March evening on your calendar to watch the cranes, as Chris Helzer, director of science for the Conservancy in Nebraska puts it, “fall from the sky like dandelion seeds” en masse.

an illustration of birds in summer
Summer Violet-crowned, blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds, along with a dozen other bird species, have been recorded at TNC’s 380-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona. © Teagan White

SUMMER/Ramsay Canyon Preserve, Arizona (above right) The “sky islands” and cool canyons of the Huachuca Mountains, at the crossroads of the Sierra Madre, the Rockies, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, support an unusual diversity of bird species. The standouts are hummingbirds that spend the summer here before flitting off to Mexico and Central America. Violet-crowned, blue-throated and magnificent hummingbirds, along with a dozen other bird species, have been recorded at the Conservancy’s 380-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where guests can take a guided nature walk or watch the action at the visitors center feeders.

The treaty and the act recognized that bird migration was a phenomenon that transcended boundaries. But the controversy continued. Missouri’s attorney general, Frank W. McAllister, went on a duck-poaching expedition and was arrested by a federal game warden; he then challenged the act’s constitutionality on the grounds that it infringed on state sovereignty. But in an important decision in 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against McAllister and the state of Missouri, upholding the notion of collective responsibility for a fleeting resource.

Even with the Supreme Court’s blessing, enforcing the act was not a bloodless struggle: People literally put their lives on the line for birds. In 1922, a game warden named Edgar Lindgren was killed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, by three men who had shot a bittern out of season. Another warden, Edward Whitehead, was murdered in Savannah, Georgia, while trying to arrest a duck poacher in 1934.

Today, with the hindsight of a century, it is clear that the treaty and its ensuing legislation have been a resounding success. Over the decades, some of the most vulnerable species, including snowy egrets, great blue herons and, in Canada, trumpeter swans, returned to healthy populations. Other treaties followed—with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972) and even the Soviet Union (1976). Dozens of conservation organizations arose to support and expand on government efforts, including The Nature Conservancy, founded in 1951.

But the work isn’t over. Though migratory birds are now protected from overhunting, modern technology has created new dangers: collision with motor vehicles, aircraft, skyscrapers and communications towers; light pollution that interferes with birds’ navigational instincts; and huge floating patches of plastic garbage that seabirds ingest. We’ve found solutions to some problems, such as banning the chemical DDT, which nearly wiped out bald eagles and other raptors in the decades after World War II. But others are more complicated.

One of the biggest threats to migratory birds today is habitat loss through development and fragmentation. This is why the Conservancy works around the globe to protect landscapes and find creative solutions that benefit people and wildlife. In central California, a Conservancy program enlists rice farmers to provide winter wetlands habitat for shorebirds along the Pacific Flyway. In Central and South America, the growing popularity of bird-watching and other ecotourism activities is creating economic incentives to conserve habitat. Often working in partnership with governments and other nonprofit organizations, the Conservancy helps identify and protect the most critical areas for wildlife. And its policy experts assist lawmakers in crafting sound legislation based on the best science available—most recently, helping shape a proposed framework under the act that would reduce human-caused bird deaths and help mitigate the hazards of certain energy, communication and transmission projects.

A century ago, the Migratory Bird Treaty made a real difference. Today, bird conservation work continues, addressing new threats so the creatures that bring us so much wonder can flourish for the next hundred years.

FALL/The Great Salt Lake Shorelands (below left) If shorebirds used guidebooks, this Conservancy preserve along the Pacific Flyway would merit a starred review. Its system of salt- and freshwater marshes, ponds, sloughs and mudflats is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the millions of birds that feed and nest here annually. Red-winged blackbirds, Wilson’s phalaropes and eared grebes are just a few of some 250 species that can be spotted at the preserve. Fall is an ideal time to observe the migrating birds from the visitors center, which has boardwalks and an observation tower.

an illustrattion of birds in winter
WINTER At Mad Island Marsh, Texas, you may see songbirds such as the Le Conte’s sparrow, swamp sparrow and Harris’s sparrow, as well as resident raptors like the crested caracara. © Teagan White

WINTER/Mad Island Marsh, Texas (above right) The near-total disappearance of the tallgrass coastal prairies that once stretched across Texas and Louisiana makes remnants like this 7,063-acre preserve critical for wintering waterfowl. The Conservancy and its partners have worked to protect and restore wetlands and prairies used by migrating geese, endangered whooping cranes, and songbirds such as the Le Conte’s sparrow, swamp sparrow and Harris’s sparrow, as well as resident raptors like the crested caracara. The Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh is open by appointment only, except during special volunteer events such as the annual Audubon Christmas bird count, rated one of the top in the country.