100 Years Later, the First International Treaty to Protect Birds Has Grown Wings

The U.S. and Canada celebrate the centennial of an agreement recognizing that birds see no borders

Ostrich Feather Hat, 1910-1912
Ostrich Feather Hat, 1910-1912 National Museum of American History

Nature's most flamboyant feathers were intended to attract other birds. But showy feathers also have the unfortunate tendency to attract humans. In the late 1800's, American and European women were loving birds to death through fashion. Feathers became so desirable on women's hats that entire populations of birds were being driven towards extinction.

An ostrich feather hat in Smithsonian's collection is a typical example of the fashion that demanded mass harvest of birds. This year, the U.S. and Canada are both celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Migratory Bird Treaty, which demanded that those hats go out of style. America and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed the historic international treaty on August 16th, 1916. 

Birds are important not only for the ecosystem services they provide, but for their function as environmental indicators. If we want to understand the complex challenges facing us today—zoonotic diseases, climate change—“we need to look to our feathered colleagues in the sky,” says David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who addressed the sixth annual North American Ornithology Conference taking place in Washington, D.C. this week. 

At the turn of the century, birds like the snowy egret and the great blue heron were being gunned down by the thousands for their plumes. Ostriches were comparatively lucky—entrepreneurs soon learned that those could be ranched for greater profit than hunting them.

Some birds came under attack for their meat as well. Any respectable restaurant in the Eastern U.S. offered wild canvasback duck on the menu. Other waterfowl fetched lower prices at markets and restaurants. Ordinary shotguns were not sufficient for the slaughter of ducks and geese, which took place on a scale similar to modern commercial fishing. Many market hunters used punt guns, which were essentially small cannons mounted on boats that were capable of taking out entire flocks at once.

Two groups of people were particularly horrified at what was taking place: bird lovers and traditional hunters.

In 1887, Teddy Roosevelt organized The Boone and Crockett Club, which was (and remains) an organization of sport hunters who sought to protect wildlife and wild places. It was the first organization created for citizen action towards conservation policy. Early successes included lobbying for the creation of national forests and the passage of The Yellowstone Protection Act.

Boone and Crockett's model helped to inspire the creation of other environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

In 1896, two ladies from the cream of Boston society decided to do something about the feathers in hats being marketed to them. Harriet Hemenway and Mina Hall organized a series of afternoon teas in which they implored other affluent women to stop wearing feathered hats. Their tea parties grew into the formation of the Audubon Society.

The fledgling Audubon Society and Boone and Crockett found themselves cooperating in 1900 as they both lobbied for the passage of The Lacey Act, which established federal penalties for transporting live or dead animals across state lines if they had been killed or taken in violation of state or federal laws. The Lacey Act was one of a series of federal laws that helped to protect birds from being exterminated, but it still wasn't enough.

Any birdwatcher understands that birds know no borders. They migrate across state and national lines every year, and so protecting threatened birds on one side of their migration wasn't enough. An international treaty was needed to ensure cooperation between nations for the protection of wildlife. The result was the Migratory Bird Treaty, which remains a cornerstone of North American conservation and a template for future cooperation around the globe.

Under the accompanying Migratory Bird Treaty Act, all birds in the United States that migrate across state or international borders are regulated by the federal government. Non-migratory birds, such as wild turkeys, are not covered by the Act.

In today’s era of interconnectedness, the treaty remains as relevant as ever, says Pete Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “It’s almost more important today than it was then,” Marra said at the conference, which, with more than 2,000 participants representing 42 countries in attendance, is perhaps the world’s largest meeting of its kind. “Back then, with declines in over 40 species, we knew the causes: overhunting of ducks, culling of egrets and herons for fashion and food. Now, we don’t know what the cause is.”

Marra, who is chairing the conference, added: “As we look to the next 100 years … we’re really going to have to expand that legislation. We’re going to have to expand the number of countries.” 

When legal protections were first given to birds, the tools for studying and preserving them were limited. Back in 1916, visual population counts were made by biologists and amateurs and a small number of over-stretched game wardens tried to police breeding grounds. With the advent of new technologies, more tools are now available. The threats have also changed during the past century. Rather than overhunting, it is loss of habitat, poor water quality, invasive species and environmental toxins that comprise the primary threats to American birds.

Lane Nothman, managing director of the nonprofit Boreal Songbird Initiative, says the way forward lies in using the information we've gleaned from new technology including geolocators, radioisotopes, and citizen science. "Technology is revealing new and different things about bird migration," she says. "It's directing us toward the need to protect larger swaths of habitat for breeding, wintering, and migratory routes." Here's hoping we can continue to muster the international cooperation to expand that protection.

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