Marking the Year of the Bird

National Geographic, Audubon, Cornell join forces in defense of migratory species

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A hundred years ago the snowy egret was hunted almost to extinction for its delicate feathers before early conservationists, such as the Audubon Society, along with the federal government, stepped in to stop the slaughter.

This year, the National Audubon Society has teamed up with National Geographic, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International to officially make 2018 the Year of the Bird.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act - a pivotal piece of legislation that saved the snowy egret and continues to save countless birds' lives. The law was enacted in an era when many birds were threatened by the commercial trade of birds and feathers.

Jason Daley wrote last month at Smithsonian.com that "Hats made the law necessary." In the 1800s and early 1900s, the United States saw the extinction of several species of birds, including the heath hen, great auk, labrador duck, Carolina parakeet and most troubling of all, the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird on the continent.

Most of those were hunted for food, but in the late 1800s, birds faced a new threat: fashion. Some 50 North American bird species, including great egrets, snowy egrets and great blue herons were being hunted for their plumes, which were added to fashionable women's hats. In some cases, entire taxidermy birds were sewn to the headgear.

The hunting for feathers wiped out entire colonies of the birds, especially in Florida, leading to calls for regulation and the establishment of the National Audubon Society. It was also a major factor in the establishment of the Migratory Bird Act Treaty - initially the American end of a songbird treaty with Great Britain on behalf of Canada, which forbade the killing of many insectivorous native birds, disturbing any egg or nest or capturing and transporting birds over state lines.

Imagine how many fewer birds and bird species we'd have today if they hadn't been protected for the last 100 years. Currently, the Audubon Society and many others are working to strengthen our laws to protect birds against the more modern threats of gas and oil exploration, power lines, wind turbines, drones and more.

Enforcement of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act against these threats is arbitrary and difficult. Last month, reversing years of federal policy, the Interior Department issued a ruling that businesses that accidentally kill nongame migratory birds during their operations are not in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This weakening of the law will make it difficult to hold industries liable for killing birds or failing to safeguard migratory birds in the course of their operations.

The Year of the Bird might be the wake-up call we all need to protect our birds and ourselves from the mounting threats against our world.

Check out the National Audubon Society website for more information about the Year of the Bird.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe, and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of "For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard" and "Birdhouses of the World."

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