Migrating Birds Need Our Help

An update on Audubon's policy efforts to protect migratory birds.
Sandhill Cranes. Chokchai Leangsuksun/Audubon Photography Awards

You might find yourself in more conversations about the birds you are seeing and hearing lately. Billions of birds are flying across our continent on a migration journey that in some cases defies logic. From tiny warblers to Sandhill Cranes, many of the birds you are seeing and hearing travel hundreds and even thousands of miles roundtrip moving up and down the Western Hemisphere. Some cross continents and oceans, some up and down coastlines. We’re in the middle of the peak period of spring migration, which is why May is when we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day.

The Foundation of Migratory Bird Protection

Right now, in the United States, those migrating birds lack long-standing protections they had held for decades. The Trump administration, despite court losses and significant public opposition, implemented a rule to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a 100-year-old law that has long stood as the foundation of bird protection in this country. The rule, finalized in January, limits the MBTA’s protection only to activities that purposefully kill birds, exempting all industrial hazards from enforcement.

This means that any “incidental” death—no matter how inevitable, avoidable or devastating to birds—became immune from enforcement under the law. If this change had been in place in 2010, BP would have faced no consequences under the MBTA for the more than one million birds killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This good news is, the Biden administration has introduced a new rule to revoke this change. This is an important step, but not the end of what we need to do to bring birds back.

“Reinstating Migratory Bird Treaty Act protections is a critical step, and at a time when we have lost 3 billion birds in North America since 1970 and climate change threatens extinction for two-thirds of bird species, it is a baseline for what we should be doing for birds,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president of conservation policy, National Audubon Society. “Birds are telling us they are in trouble and we are running out of time to act.”

New science has revealed the loss of 3 billion birds in North America since 1970 and that two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Audubon is calling for a multi-front approach to tackle this alarming bird emergency. That starts with not only reinstating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but strengthening it for the future.

“We’re asking the Biden administration to prioritize the adoption of a permitting program for incidental take,” said Erik Schneider, policy analyst, National Audubon Society. “Establishing permits to help industry manage and reduce its impact on birds is a common-sense approach to clarifying these longstanding protections and providing businesses with certainty.”

Audubon is also looking for Congress to get involved.  Reintroduction and passage of the Migratory Bird Protection Act is a critical priority. The Migratory Bird Protection Act was passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in the 116th Congress and had a bipartisan group of more than 90 co-sponsors.

The bill would secure protections for birds and direct the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to develop a permitting process for “incidental take” through which relevant businesses would implement best management practices and document compliance, further driving innovation in how to best prevent bird deaths. It would need to be reintroduced in this Congress in order to be considered again.

Audubon is also working to backstop the lost protections at the state-level. Over the last three years California, Vermont, and Virginia have established state-level migratory bird protections.

How We Bring Birds Back

Strengthening the MBTA will be an incredible victory for birds, but just as there is no single cause of declining migratory bird populations, there is no single policy solution, program or approach that will suffice. Audubon's policy priorities, from reducing emissions to restoring and conserving our lands and waters, are focused on addressing the threats to birds, people, and the places we need. But the loss of 3 billion birds requires a special focus.

That’s why Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy, and other organizations are working to build broad support for a suite a suite of actions that foster on-the-ground protection, mitigation, and restoration of bird populations and the habitats they need to thrive. 

The Bring Birds Back Policy Agenda is focused on three main objectives:

  • Reinstate and strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through administration and legislative action.
  • Increase funding and coordination for federal and state fish and wildlife agencies to address the needs of declining and vulnerable species and landscapes the agencies manage.
  • Revitalize and enhance the framework for national and international conservation of migratory birds through a suite of administrative and legislative actions.

This will require action by both the administration and Congress.

There are already early signs of hope in 2021. In addition to the administration reinstating critical migratory bird protection, the “America the Beautiful” vision which was just announced includes important goals for expanding migratory corridors and investing in habitat restoration.

We have also seen Congress on the move. The Bird-Safe Building Act, which passed the House of Representatives last Congress, was reintroduced earlier this year as was the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. You can learn more about both bills and tell your Member of Congress today that you support them by clicking the links above.

We expect to see more progress as the appropriations process for the next fiscal year begins and we’ll keep you updated on how you can get involved.