Country Ecology: Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Tamworth—April 30, 2018—This is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. All other legislation pertinent to the safety of our native birds has been added on to this important bill that reflected the plight of avian life in those times. It ended the millinery trade, which was selling feathers from egrets and the like from wanton killing. A few older ladies of the upper class in Boston society had a lot to do with changing opinion on wearing mummified birds on brims of their fashionable large hats then. It became a societal no-no for the wealthy to dress that way after their politics.

This 2018 centennial salutes the Act, which protects more than 1,025 species. Before passage, at one time this was not a federal matter for birdlife, because this particular bill recognized a matter of policy that birds cross state lines in their migration and normal flying patterns. In celebration, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, Birdlife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 as the Year of the Bird. Beautiful photos in the magazine will accompany more stories, maps, and books and social media content throughout this year.

Birds reflect our ethical values, and that makes wild birds matter. They are our best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding. When I first started selling my bark-faced birdhouses to Wild Bird Centers, that growing business recognized that many urban dwellers could retreat into “wildness” by putting bird feeders out—even in the back of their condominiums. It gave baby boomers a sense of the wild they couldn’t live in, after their initial hunger for “back-to-the land” activities they weren’t quite successful at in their twenties. They had to flee their dreams and move to cities for employment, hence a new moniker as Yuppies (Young Urban Professionals). Nature could be brought to them, even if they could not retire to it.

Due to this enjoyable hobby, birding has helped many to understand about our environmental degradation and what they can helpfully do about it. Around here, ASNH and other groups constantly have lectures for how we can participate in the natural world and benefit it. It is reason enough to retire here and for others, attempt to make a living in NH. Birds are the most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth and teach us much about what is going on with ecology. We have a unique responsibility to be good stewards in our living and assisting the birds around us is a great joyous step towards that. Birds live squarely in our presence, while wild mammals have to be at a distance and hopefully not be too much of a problem in our periphery.

We wouldn’t dare do the dastardly things this act came to prohibit, but from time to time, I like to come across reports of what was occurring at the turn of that century a hundred years ago. Teddy Roosevelt had a lot to do with establishing wildlife refuges about the SE coast, but Audubon wardens of that time were risking their life guarding sandbars and islands from millinery hunters sacking the rookeries for egret plumes. There is a reason the great white egret is on the seal of National Audubon regarding the heroics of that time; some men even got killed.

Others convinced the public of benefits wild birds deliver, where previously they were thought to eat the seed farmers inserted into the soil before they could germinate.  Watching purple finches eat the blossoms of orchard fruit trees made landowners want to kill them to get a more abundant apple or cherry crop. Early ornithologists had to convince there was not as much loss as supposed and let the birds be. Sort of a pruning exercise, really. And researchers showed the insect content of bird stomachs to demonstrate what pest consumers these critters were and beneficial overall. Strange to think now these findings had to accomplish so much back then. But birders have always had to overturn biases and prejudices to help birds out.

I thought one of the amusing stories I came across was about Frank Chapman taking a luncheon break from his 1896 work at NY City’s Museum of Natural History to walk about and observe the various species exhibited on women’s hats during a stroll. He came up with a ghastly list that was well over a hundred species counted during two days of this activity. Some birds were dried up common terns and barn swallows, often three or more on one brim! These results were astonishing; combined with the fact the ladies didn’t know they were even wearing the same birds they were probably witnessing in their own back yards, orchards, and forests.

Dave Eastman also broadcasts “Country Ecology” four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 FM. As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: (or)  for consultation. This article was also published by the Conway Daily Sun.

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