In its last months in office, the Trump administration is attempting to weaken key environmental protections for migratory birds. That’s a problem.
Protecting migratory birds is an unsung but critically important part of environmental protection. So what can the Biden administration do counter these Trump-era efforts? Learn from history.
Since the late 19th century, the U.S. government has recognized the economic importance of birds to the nation’s farms. Before synthetic pesticides were developed in the early 20th century, birds were considered the most efficacious form of insect pest control, and the U.S. Biological Survey, an agency housed in the Department of Agriculture (and a precursor to today’s Fish and Wildlife Service), devoted time and resources to understanding the population sizes, migratory patterns and feeding habits of a wide range of avian species.
This attention to birds came at a time when their fates were imperiled by excessive hunting for market and sport, feather-obsessed fashion trends, industrial production and pollution and even scientific collecting. By the turn of the 20th century, there was a significant threat of massive bird extinctions. The dwindling passenger pigeon was the most famous example, and birding societies like Audubon, sport hunting associations and ornithologists banded together to press the government for action to halt these threats.
Birds were understood as a critical node in the agricultural economy, and in response, the Biological Survey helped to pass a spate of national and international legislation aimed at conserving migratory birds. Most significantly, the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), a federal law that codified a 1916 Treaty with Canada, gave the survey authority over bird conservation — primarily, at first, through regulating hunting.
Then, as now, laws like the MBTA were controversial. The MBTA, in fact, was criticized for wresting control over game laws from the states, and this legal challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Upholding the law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1920: “Here a national interest of very nearly the first magnitude is involved. It can be protected only by national action in concert with that of another power. … But for the treaty and statute, there soon might be no birds for any powers to deal with.” In short, birds were worth protecting, and it was the federal government’s job to do so.
Scientists in government wildlife agencies have been central to this work, providing resources, coordination and expertise for the collection of vast amounts of data on migratory birds — much of it collected by what we would now call “citizen scientists.” Amateur, avocational birders — the citizen scientists whom these federal agencies termed “collaborators” — also played a role by collecting phenological data on the yearly timing of migration, filling out cards and sending them to Washington with descriptive details of bird sightings. In doing so for almost a century and a half, wildlife bureaucracies have amassed what the USGS calls “the longest and most comprehensive legacy data set on bird migration in existence.” This data is now part of the National Phenology Network, a collective of citizen scientists, nonprofit organizations, scientists and agencies that use information on seasonal changes (like bird migration) to track the impacts of climate change.
Some citizen collaborators also participated in the more intensive practice of “bird banding,” affixing coded tags of various types to birds in the hope of recapturing or otherwise reacquiring the tags at a later date, thus cataloguing information on bird movements and mortality. Since the 1920s, the federal government centralized this research through the Biological Survey, which served as a clearinghouse for banding data and publishing “Bird Banding Notes” to keep collaborators appraised of best practices and progress in bird banding. Like migratory sighting data, banding has generated enormous quantities of information on birds — since 1960, federal agencies have received more than 64 million banding records.
The data are used to monitor migration, understand species and ecosystem characteristics and track population trends. They show disturbing downward trends in populations for a startling number of species. These trends have multiple, complex causes, but they indicate changes that affect all of us: rapidly shrinking habitats and the ecosystem services that go along with them, as well as the dramatic and not entirely predictable effects of climate change.
Agricultural pest control is no longer the primary justification for conserving migratory birds. The U.S. environmental movement of the mid-20th century gave rise to legislation like the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which codified the idea that “species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” But the Migratory Bird Treaty Act has outlived its initial justification to embrace this expanded notion of the value of wildlife, and has remained a linchpin in bird conservation, providing regulatory mechanisms to curb bird mortality and mandates for further data collection.
But the work is at risk in the waning months of the present administration. The Fish and Wildlife Service has published its final Environmental Impact Statement addressing an attempt to reinterpret the Act to apply only to the intentional injury or killing of birds rather than any action that harms these animals — a change that the service’s own impact statement admits will probably increase the mortality rates of migratory birds, the very species they have been charged to protect for 100 years (and which at this moment find themselves in their most dire situation since the late 19th century.)
Rank-and-file scientists and administrators in federal wildlife agencies, in concert with avocational birders and citizen scientists, have for decades been the source of what we know about migratory birds and the bulwark of their conservation. This information is essential not only for the survival of birds, but the ecosystems we all depend on.