A Century of Protection

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The Migratory Bird Treaty Act
As you may already know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the existence of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The MBTA is one of the oldest pieces of law that protects wildlife, and it’s been instrumental in helping to maintain and restore so many avian species. Prior to the MBTA, birds were hunted as a food source (some species still are) as well as a source for decorative feathers. Overharvesting led to the extinction of several species including Labrador Ducks, Great Auks, Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens, with many other species on the brink of extinction. (i) Concerned citizens and scientists would eventually raise their voices, leading to the creation and enactment of the MBTA. This week, we’d like to review what exactly the MBTA is, how it’s enforced, and how you can help us to “Keep Them Flying” by following the laws contained within the MBTA.

loxahatchee-blue-heron-flightGreat Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Felipe Correa

What Is It?
The MBTA is a set of laws that protect birds in North America. What species are protected by the MBTA? The answer is fairly simply; pretty much all of them. When it was originally put into law, the MBTA protected only migratory bird species, but in the century since it’s been expanded to cover all bird species native to North America. (i) The only bird species that are not covered by the MBTA are species that are non-native or invasive, and those that are found in North America solely due to intentional or unintentional introduction by humans. (ii) For a full list of all of the species under the protection of the MBTA, click here. The MBTA protects birds by making it illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations. (ii) What do we mean by parts? In this case, the term parts may refer to feathers, beaks, skulls, bones, talons, skin, feet, or any other piece of a bird’s anatomy.

So to sum it all up, the MBTA makes it illegal to possess pretty much any bird native to North America, or any parts of those birds.

tigertail-beach-roseate-spoonbillRoseate Spoonbill. Photo Credit: Felipe Correa

Has It Worked?
This is kind of a grey area, depending on who you ask. While we have recorded a resurgence in populations of many species including raptors, willets (iii) and snowy egrets (iv), there has been instances in which courts have ruled against parties that have used the MBTA in attempts to penalize companies that have been found to be responsible for the deaths of birds. In 2002 the MBTA was used in the court proceedings that followed a live-fire exercise conducted by the US Navy in the northern Marianas Islands. This exercise caused the deaths of birds, but the Navy was excused, because they were conducting “military readiness activities.” (i) Later in 2012, seven oil companies based in North Dakota were charges with killing protected birds that drowned in their oil pits. (v) The judge threw the case out, stating that oil pit technologies were not take into account when the MBTA was originally written. Oil pits and other novel hazards to migratory birds have presented a host of new dangers to birds that have been the focus of expanding the MBTA even further. (v)

marco-osprey-relaxed-full-body-stareOsprey. Photo Credit: Felipe Correa

In closing, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice with the hope that they will help you to better assist my team at the Bird Center to succeed in our mission. Firstly, if you find a baby bird, then please do not attempt to raise it yourself. Remember that possessing birds that are protected under the MBTA is completely illegal unless you are specially permitted to possess them. Our team holds current permits that enable us to lawfully care for these animals. Our staff are also highly skilled and knowledgeable in this regard, and their experience in the field ensures that baby birds that come through our hospital don’t suffer from malnutrition and deformities. Second, if you see a bird that’s in danger or injured, then call our team as soon as possible. Our bird emergency line is live at all times; (305) 852-4486 ext. 1. And finally, if you know of a situation that may be in violation of the MBTA, then contact your local USFWS immediately. Reports of violations may be made anonymously, so please don’t hesitate to make the call. By standing up for birds and other wildlife, we can work together to ensure the continued survival of our nature world.

Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016

(i) Audubon Society: The Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

(ii) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services: Migratory Bird Treaty Act

(iii) All About Birds: Willet

(iv) Audubon Society: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained

(v) Audubon Society: How to Protect Birds from 21st Century Threats

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