An MBTA for the 21st Century

Audubon played a key role in stirring sentiment for bird protection a hundred years ago—and is now working to strengthen our premier avian conservation law.

For nearly a century the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has been one of the most effective protective tools in the history of wildlife conservation, surviving persistent attacks by exploiters of all stripes (including this latest one). But over the last several decades, human ingenuity has baffled the MBTA’s provisions. Tens of millions of migratory birds die needlessly and horribly every year in collisions with power lines and communication towers, or are lured unintentionally into oil waste pits. That could soon change: In late May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a series of proposals to help the venerable Act meet some of the challenges its faces in the twenty-first century.

Audubon was at the forefront of the campaign when Congress originally passed the MBTA in 1918, and is again pushing to ensure that the plan to strengthen the Act is successful—including meeting with elected leaders and drumming up support from bird lovers of all stripes. As Mike Daulton, Audubon vice president for government relations, says, “This is the most important change to bird conservation law in decades, and it deserves broad bipartisan support.”

Who “owns” the wild birds? Living at an almost supernatural intensity of song and animation, birds would seem to soar far beyond the grasp of human possession. Yet a century ago many North Americans viewed birds merely as items of commerce to be slaughtered and peddled for food, fashion, and sport. State legislatures and the courts argued that wild birds were the property of the individual states, whose hunting laws existed mostly to ease killing them. Dead terns “ornamented” women’s hats in the streets, robins blasted by shotguns hung for sale in urban markets, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were stuffed and mounted for the display cases of private collectors.

Just before World War I, conservationists came to believe the remedy lay in crafting an international treaty that would override these deadly state laws. Here the various state and local Audubon societies of the time played a strong grassroots role in stirring sentiment for bird protection. Concerned sportsmen wrote letters to newspapers and rod-and-gun publications. Schoolteachers started classroom discussions that in many cases continued at home between children and their parents.

A key role in persuading the United States government to sign a treaty with Canada to regulate the “taking” of the continent’s migratory birds was the “dickey bird amendment” suggested by Audubon leader T. Gilbert Pearson. By including under its protective umbrella the small, insectivorous songbirds (colloquially known as dickey birds) popular with homeowners and farmers, the MBTA’s proponents broadened its popular appeal. Congress ratified the treaty in 1918. Similar treaties signed since then with Mexico, Japan, and Russia have raised the total under protection to more than a thousand species.

Still, the toll of human activity remains staggering. Collisions with power lines kill 175 million birds a year, while communication towers kill 50 million. Up to a million birds are fatally are attracted to oil waste pits, which they often mistake for freshwater ponds.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to issue permits granting immunity from prosecution to companies whose structures or procedures cause accidental deaths among birds. In return, these public utilities, private industries, and other government agencies would be expected to use, according to the Service’s proposals, “best practices or technologies in mitigating hazards to birds at their installations.” The proposal is still in the early stages, and it is unclear whether it will extend to the wind energy sector or building collisions. The public comment period ends July 27, and the Service plans to issue the final changes later this year.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for ways it can better protect birds from ongoing unintentional—or incidental—harm resulting from certain activities,” says Laury Parramore, senior public affairs specialist for the Service. “An ‘incidental take’ authorization system under the MBTA could provide a means to reduce some bird mortality and mitigate for other unavoidable mortality, benefitting bird species from raptors to songbirds.”

Birds, in a legal sense, became wards of the federal government in 1918. Their welfare remains the common responsibility of us all.


Want to help? Send a message to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today to support this critical action.