Celebrating the Migratory Bird Treaty – A Century of Bird Conservation

By Tom Cooper and Katie Koch, USFWS Midwest Migratory Bird Program

A century ago the conservation landscape across North America was much different for migratory birds.  In the 1800s, the unregulated killing of migratory birds put many species at risk throughout North America.  Feathers from waterbirds such as egrets and herons were highly prized by the fashion industry; while other species, including waterfowl and shorebirds, were pursued extensively by market hunters. 

By the early 1900s, the wildlife conservation movement began to pick up steam partly in response to the unchecked take of migratory birds.  Many states began enacting legislation to set hunting seasons in response to declining game populations.  President Theodore Roosevelt established the Pelican Island Federal Bird Refuge as a nesting sanctuary for waterbirds.  Congress passed the first federal wildlife protection law, the Lacey Act, which made it illegal to transport or sell a bird in one state when it was illegally harvested in another state in 1900.  Even with this conservation momentum, the Passenger Pigeon, historically one of the most abundant birds in North America, went extinct in 1914 when “Martha” died at the Cincinnati Zoo.  

A combination of these events reinforced the need for increased cooperation in conserving our shared bird resources, especially those that cross state and international borders.  In that spirit, the United States and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the “Treaty on the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada and the United States” on August 16, 1916, which we now refer to as the Migratory Bird Treaty.  The Treaty was ultimately extended to include Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1972, and Russia in 1976. 

Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 to formally implement the provisions of the 1916 Treaty.  Specifically, the Act prohibited the hunting, killing, capturing, possession, sale, transportation, and exportation of birds, feathers, eggs, and nests.  It also provided for the establishment of protected refuges to give birds safe habitats and it encouraged the sharing of data between nations to monitor bird populations. 

The landmark Migratory Bird Treaty and Act have paved the way for migratory bird conservation over the past 100 years.  These efforts, along with others, have helped manage and conserve millions of acres of wildlife habitat benefitting migratory birds and the American public.  Throughout 2016, we will be commemorating this Centennial in every state across the Midwest Region.  Highlights will include:

  • Bird Fact Email of the Day: As a small part of our regional recognition of this important anniversary, we invite you to sign up for fun and informative bird facts which we soon will be delivering daily to our subscriber inboxes. Sign up to learn more! http://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/mbtcent.html.
  • International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) Events: The International Migratory Bird Day theme, Spread Your Wings for Bird Conservation, is closely aligned with the goals of the Migratory Bird Treaty centennial.  Access outreach materials, presentations, and more to help plan your event: http://www.migratorybirdday.org/.
  • Chicago Centennial Celebration: A large event commemorating the signing of the first Migratory Bird Treaty is being planned for August 13, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. This celebration will commemorate the Centennial, engage diverse audiences in bird conservation activities, and kick off restoration activities and bird conservation campaigns for the next several years. If you would like to become involved in this event, please contact Andrew Forbes; andrew_forbes@fws.gov.
  • Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial Youth Art Contest: Following the great example of the Junior Duck Stamp art contest, we are initiating a Centennial youth art contest that will take place in spring 2016. Art will be judged at our August 2016 Chicago Celebration.  For more information, contact Deanne Endrizzi; deanne_endrizzi@fws.gov.
  • Birding Festivals/State Fairs/Bird Meetings - The Migratory Bird Treaty centennial will be the featured theme at many bird festivals (including the Biggest Week in American Birding), state fairs, ornithological meetings, and hunting events throughout the Midwest Region in 2016.  For more information, contact Katie Koch; katie_koch@fws.gov.  

The Migratory Bird Centennial offers an unprecedented opportunity to raise the visibility of migratory bird conservation in North America and provides us a great springboard to launch us into the next 100 years!  We invite you to visit http://www.fws.gov/birds/MBTreaty100/ for more information and to access downloadable materials to use at your own events, including an informative timeline that outlines bird conservation over the past 100 years.  

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