100 years of protecting birds in U.S., Canada

The U.S. and Canada are celebrating a milestone in wildlife conservation: a century of protecting migratory birds.

“It’s hard to imagine the North American continent without egrets, ducks, hawks or songbirds, but at the turn of the 20th century, that’s the way things were looking,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty protects 800 bird species. It was the first international agreement forged to protect wild birds and among the first to protect any wildlife species.

The treaty came about after passenger pigeons, Labrador ducks and other birds became extinct from overhunting. Meanwhile, the populations of snowy egrets, white ibises and great blue herons plummeted because their feathers were being used to decorate women’s hats.

A growing conservation movement, started largely by women, took on the North American millinery trade over the killing of birds for the fashion craze. The National Audubon Society grew out of this movement.

White bird standing in water spreading its wings (Shutterstock)
Snowy egrets were once hunted to dangerously low levels for their plumage. (Shutterstock)

Buy a stamp, save a bird

The next big step in protecting migratory birds in the U.S. focused on preserving wetlands, which many of these birds call home. The 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act is commonly called the Duck Stamp Act, but the law doesn’t involve postage stamps or mailing packages.

Instead, all U.S. migratory-bird hunters 16 years of age and over must purchase and carry an annual tax “stamp,” known as a Federal Duck Stamp, which they attach to their hunting licenses.

The sale of these stamps has generated more than $800 million since 1934, resulting in the purchase or lease of some 2.5 million hectares of U.S. wetlands habitat. The stamps, which began at $1 and now cost $25, also are popular with collectors.

Birds on four federal stamps (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Every year, the Fish and Wildlife Service holds a nationwide contest to select the winning design for the Duck Stamp. (USFWS)

International cooperation under the Migratory Bird Treaty and subsequent agreements —similar treaties followed with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976) — has mostly put a stop to unregulated hunting.

But today habitat loss, pollution, invasive species and other threats are taking a heavy toll on bird populations.

Migratory birds don’t recognize national boundaries, so successful conservation efforts by governments and people around the world are key.

Small tawny-colored bird perched on branch (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The cedar waxwing is one of more than 800 bird species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty. (USFWS)

Take action

Here are some things you can do to protect birds:

Stop birds from hitting windows. Consider many effective products that are available to make windows more visible to birds.

Grow native plants. Gardens consisting of plants native to your area will preserve and increase biodiversity and provide habitat for birds and other animals.

Avoid chemical pesticides, which kill more than just pests.

Become a citizen-scientist. Several partnerships between the public and scientists link volunteer birdwatchers and scientists, including eBird, a project of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology that is one of the world’s fastest-growing online repositories of information on birds.