Celebrating 100 years of international bird conservation

Close-up view of a peregrine falcon that had nested at a Lansing-area power plant.

Oct. 20, 2016

Piping plover.
Peregine falcon.
Kirtland’s warbler.

These species may not be tip of the tongue for every Michigander, but thanks to a number of conservation efforts – and important legislation marking its centennial anniversary this year – these and other feathered fliers remain a big part of Michigan’s birding landscape.

A look back at the 19th and early 20th centuries shows that wasn’t always the case.

Karen Cleveland, an all-bird biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said that in the 1800s and early 1900s, bird exploitation was the norm.

black-and-white photo of a woman wearing a feathered hat (USFWS)“There were few legal protections for wildlife at that time. In Michigan and across the country, birds like the snowy egret and trumpeter swan were harvested for their showy, white feathers,” Cleveland said. “The feathers were used in ladies’ fashions, especially hats. Other birds, like ducks and geese, were harvested for their meat and then sold in markets.” 

At the same time, settlers were moving across the United States to stake out their new homes and businesses. As they cleared the land, drained and filled marsh habitat, and launched farms, cities, railways and roadways, vital bird habitat was destroyed in the process.

“Unfortunately,” Cleveland said, “this unregulated use of bird resources for market trade and the destruction of valuable habitat led to an inevitable decrease in bird populations.”

Peopled started to notice.

Cleveland said that by the end of the 19th century, Americans were growing concerned as they watched the extinction of the Labrador duck, heath hen, Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon.

“The specter of a nation without many of its birds galvanized Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall to act,” she said.

In 1896, Hemenway and Hall founded the first state Audubon Society in Massachusetts and began mobilizing other women to oppose the use of feathers in fashion. The model that they created inspired the formation of Audubon societies in other states.

Cleveland said these groups lent their support to the growing voice of conservation-minded hunting organizations that were making their presence felt in state legislatures and the halls of Congress in calling for action to protect the nation’s birds.

trumpeter swans on the waterIt was a strong start, as a patchwork of wildlife protection laws began to take shape state by state, but it wasn’t enough. Market hunters continued to ply their trade by stealthily killing birds in states where it was illegal and then moving quickly to transport their ill-gotten goods to states where it was still legal to sell them.

More needed to be done.

In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act – the first federal wildlife protection law – which limited market hunting by making it illegal to transport or sell a bird in one state if that bird was illegally harvested in another state.

President Theodore Roosevelt created the country’s first official National Wildlife Refuge in 1903 at Pelican Island, Florida, to protect the colonies of water birds nesting there. This would be the first of 55 National Wildlife Refuges Roosevelt would bring into existence before leaving office.

Despite these important victories for wildlife, loopholes remained.

Holly Vaughn Joswick, a wildlife outreach technician with the Michigan DNR, said that the initial laws put into place to protect birds could vary widely from state to state, meaning that birds were safe on their breeding grounds but potentially vulnerable to market hunters during migration.

“The federal government realized that conservation efforts wouldn’t be successful unless management across jurisdictional boundaries, like states and countries, was coordinated,” said Vaughn Joswick.

The Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 was one early effort to provide a national standard for bird protection, giving the federal government the authority to regulate hunting of migratory birds. Proponents of the act realized it might be vulnerable to legal challenges and moved to find a long-term solution that would address migratory bird conservation not just across the U.S. but also across the full migration pathways of America’s birds.

That vision led to the creation of the Migratory Bird Treaty.

This year marks the centennial of the Convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds (also known as the Migratory Bird Treaty), signed Aug. 16, 1916.

Kirtland's warbler sitting in a treeThree other treaties were signed shortly thereafter with Japan, Russia and Mexico.  Cleveland said the Migratory Bird Treaty, the three other treaties signed later, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act form the cornerstones of efforts to conserve birds that migrate across international borders.

In Michigan, the treaty has led to the recovery of several species including sandhill crane, wood duck, trumpeter swan and Kirtland’s warbler.

Katie Koch, a migratory bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said stories like these are evidence that “conservation works, most notably for waterfowl and wetland-dependent bird species.” She credited that success in large part to the contributions of outdoor recreationists and hunters.

“One of our greatest success stories is bringing the federally endangered Kirtland's warbler back from the brink of extinction to a thriving population that has exceeded recovery goals for the past 10 years,” Koch said.

“Sustaining this species into the future will take an ongoing commitment from conservation organizations and citizens in Michigan,” she said. “A great foundation has been laid through formal agreements among agencies, the formation of a Kirtland's warbler conservation team, ongoing fundraising campaigns and a written conservation plan to provide a blueprint for future management activities.”

As part of the yearlong celebration of the Migratory Bird Act’s 100th anniversary, the DNR joined the Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners in telling the stories of Michigan birds that have benefited from the treaty and its protections.

Those include tales of wild turkey, American robin, osprey, wood duck and piping plover. And these stories resonate with many different audiences for many good reasons.

“Whether you’re an avid duck hunter, plan your vacations around birdwatching destinations, enjoy feeding songbirds in your yard, or simply are moved by the sight of a bald eagle in flight, you have a reason to celebrate the monumental conservation accomplishments of the past century,” said Cleveland.    

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Koch agrees. She cited the 2016 State of North America’s Birds report that says “bird conservation is a powerful force for positive change” and that “birds are becoming one of humanity’s main connections to nature.”

Volunteers carrying potted trees outsideShe said that as human populations in urban areas continue to grow and expand across Michigan’s landscape, birds are often people’s sole contact with nature, helping to ensure that future generations value wildlife and natural resources. And that’s a connection worth protecting.

“Although we have made great strides since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, birds continue to face immense pressure as they migrate back and forth across our state,” Koch said. “But there are relatively easy actions everyone can take to alleviate most of these threats, starting today.” She invited people to learn more about some of the programs available at https://abcbirds.org/threats.  

For the DNR’s Cleveland, the benefits of birds are far-reaching and tangible.

“Migratory birds add beauty and sound and color to our world,” she said. “They provide countless opportunities for enjoyment and inspiration among birders, hunters, artists, engineers, inventors and outdoor enthusiasts.”

Practically speaking, these same birds play a key economic role, supporting recreational opportunities that create jobs and create billions of dollars in revenue at both the national and state level. Birds also give rise to several environmental benefits, including pollination, insect and rodent control, and seed dispersal (cutting costs for farmers and landowners).

Cleveland said that birds provide good environmental indicators, too.

“They use a wide variety of habitats in Michigan, including those where people live,” she said. “Birds are very visible, and relatively easy to study. Paying attention to the health of our birds can give us a clearer picture of the overall health of our environment.”

still from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bird conservation videoThat approach is something worth celebrating.

To learn more about the Migratory Bird Treaty centennial, visit www.fws.gov/birds/MBTreaty100.

Interested in more on the history of migratory bird conservation? Check out these brief videos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For more on bird species and wildlife viewing opportunities, visit the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/wildlife.

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