It’s time to celebrate all the birds on our continent, and a bright moment a century ago when human beings stepped up and took strong steps to protect them.

Year of the Bird, as it’s being called, marks the passage of a broad and deep law that protected migratory birds (really, all native birds), some 1,000 species. Numerous organizations, from the Audubon Society to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to BirdLife International and many others, are asking us to join them in celebrating the law and its many positive outcomes.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, one of the oldest wildlife protection laws on the books, has been called “the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed” by the National Geographic Society.

To put things into perspective, the 1800s into the early 1900s were truly a horrific time for birds. Back before humans conducted bird censuses and studied bird populations, the prevailing notion was that nature was inexhaustible. Few believed that the illegal and indiscriminate killing of what we now call game birds and the commercial trade in bird feathers could have a negative effect on bird life. But by the 1890s people began to notice that some species, especially egrets, were becoming hard to find. The extinction of the passenger pigeon by 1914 was a grim wakeup call.

It took several decades back then, but strong leadership from many men and women (even though women could not yet vote) eventually led to the act’s passage.

The law stopped the slide toward extinction for a number of species and helped turn the tide against the profligate slaughter of birds, plus it set the stage for many later bird protection statutes, including the Endangered Species Act.

This centennial year marks a recommitment by many bird organizations and individuals to preserving our continent’s birds.

What can you do to join the festivities for the Year of the Bird? Start by visiting the Audubon Society’s home page, click on Year of the Bird, to find “Count me in.” National Geographic maintains the official Year of the Bird website, and it’s well worth a visit, too, with monthly suggestions of actions you can take to help birds.

Don’t worry that the party has started without you. There’s plenty of time to join in the festivities.

 

Turning the tide

Before 1916, there was little to prevent people from shooting any and all birds that flew overhead. Ducks and geese were heavily over-harvested and sold to restaurants and meat counters. Herons, egrets and even songbirds were slaughtered for feathers to adorn women’s hats, a craze that devastated bird populations. And many people at the time headed out often for a day of “recreational shooting,” killing every bird in sight.

A number of species — especially snowy and great egrets, wood ducks, terns and others — slipped close to the extinction line, their absence so notable that conservationists and concerned citizens were galvanized into action, resulting in the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty, initially between the U.S. and Canada, in 1916 and, two years later, the national law. The Audubon Society grew out of these efforts to stop the heedless killing of birds, and the act was one of its first major victories.

Not covered

The law doesn’t apply to nonnative birds brought here by humans, like the rock pigeon, house sparrow, European starling, mute swan and a few others. Many groups of birds, including ducks, geese and some doves, may be hunted in season with a license.

Less enforcement

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently decided not to continue to enforce a portion of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The agency will no longer impose penalties for unintentionally causing bird fatalities. With the law only applying to those who set out to intentionally harm birds, there is no longer protection, for example, for the 174,000 birds killed by wind turbines and 750,000 birds that die in oil pits each year.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.