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An open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond

The price of national security is paid in many currencies

Texas is a special place to bird. The best place in Texas is land along the Rio Grande River, the border with Mexico. 


From one end to the other, the Rio Grande Valley, as the area is known, holds an important fringe of tropical vegetation. On one side of the highway that borders this area are the scarce pieces of wildlife habitat that we have managed to save. Across the highway is cropland.


Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) sits along the river, 2,000 acres of semi-tropical vegetation that attracts birds from similar habitat in Mexico. 


It is one of a string of federal, state, and county sites set aside as parkland and nature reserves. All provide excellent wildlife habitat. 


I’ve been to Santa Ana NWR several times. I made my 550th North American bird sighting there — an Anhinga. 


I had wandered away from my tour group to check the shore of a small pond. There, in a tree, wings stretched to dry, was the Anhinga.


On visits to Santa Ana since then there have been more new birds, more interesting and special birds.


Now comes government plans to build The Wall along the river, our border with Mexico. 


If plans are approved, one piece of The Wall would cut straight through Santa Ana. There will be the usual scars of heavy construction work. There would be a naked 50-yard buffer zone along the wall’s south side. (The Wall would not follow river contours nor would it be designed to avoid any particular habitat. The Wall is to be strictly utilitarian.)


This stretch of wall, cutting through the refuge, is to be 10 miles long. It would be no more than a five-mile walk to avoid the wall.


Santa Ana has been a showpiece of the refuge system, a special place, one, incidentally, created with money from the sale of duck stamps (96 percent of refuge cost).


I understand the discussion about security. With The Wall, however, the refuge is compromised. I don't say that is good or bad. All I say is if The Wall becomes reality, Santa Ana no longer will be the beautiful place so many birders have enjoy.


The price we pay for security comes in many currencies.






Change in law has gutted protection for migratory birds

In December we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since 1918 it has given protection to birds that might be killed, in the words of the treaty, incidentally or accidentally. 


It was no excuse if death of a migratory bird was incidental or accidental.


Industry had to make an effort to prevent the death of birds that might, for instance, fly into wind generators or power lines or land in oil waste pits on a drilling site. Incidental or accidental death of birds could mean prosecution and fines. 


The law had long arms. It was illegal for you or me to harm a nesting bird, to even remove a tree holding an active nest. Nor could you harm the woodpecker making holes in your house. 


No more. With unbelievable timing, on the 100th anniversary of the treaty, the federal government has gutted it. 


You know bad things are happening when the National Ocean Industries Association and the American Petroleum Institute, among others, give enthusiastic approval to action on wildlife and the environment, as they have in this case.


Holding people and companies responsible for incidental and accidental harm to birds now is called “overreach” by our Department of the Interior. 


Breaking the law today, under the new language, requires “direct and affirmative purposeful actions to reduce migratory birds, their eggs, or their nests by killing or capturing …” 


In other words, you can’t do it on purpose, but you are not responsible for incidents or accidents.


The scenario has become: Dead birds? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to. It was an accident.


Millions of birds die each year in incidental and accidental ways. Care was required, for instance, in to choosing a wind generator site that posed as small a risk to birds as possible. That could involve months or years of costly environmental study. Today, delay for a costly study might be considered overreach.


Drillers in North Dakota have had to restrict animal access to their oil waste pits, often mistaken by birds for water. That required both extra work and expense. Overreach?


Long-line fishing boats often have hooked albatross attracted by the trailing bait. Preventive measures were required. Overreach?


Those concerns have been replaced by what a spokesman for the ocean industry folks has called a “common sense approach.”


Or, you could say the change simply means freedom to kill migratory birds without consequence.


Happy Anniversary.












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