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Migratory Bird Act

Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

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U.S. Capitol

There are many laws that protect birds.

Jeff Gunn

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was implemented in 1918 and to this day is one of the most comprehensive pieces of United States legislation designed to protect birds. With international connections and extensive amendments to keep it current, this law helps protect birds to ensure wildlife diversity and conservation for generations.

What Is the Migratory Bird Act?

The Migratory Bird Act is a treaty originally signed between the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada) in 1918 for the purpose of ending the extensive commercial trade in feathers. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the long plumes many bird species grew for breeding season were highly desirable fashion accessories, and tens of thousands of birds were indiscriminately slaughtered for profit. This abominable trend led to the formation of many conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society, but without a law to enforce, conservation efforts were not as effective as they could be.

In 1918, the implementation of this treaty prohibited the hunting, killing, capturing, possession, sale, transportation and exportation of birds, feathers, eggs and nests. It also provided for the establishment of protected refuges to give birds safe habitats, and it encouraged the sharing of data between nations to monitor bird conservation. Hunting seasons are regulated on specific birds, and management techniques are allowed when birds may be causing extensive problems with necessary activities, such as agriculture.

Amendments to the initial treaty extended its range to include other nations: Mexico (1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976) are all included in the Migratory Bird Act today. The treaty is also regularly revised and updated to reflect changes in bird species names or to add or remove species from its protection.

Birds That Are and Aren't Protected

Contrary to popular belief, all bird species are not protected under the Migratory Bird Act. Birds that are considered non-native, human-introduced species (whether they were deliberately or unintentionally introduced) are not protected. Furthermore, native birds that are members of unprotected bird families are also not protected. Invasive birds such as the house sparrow and European starling are not protected, but neither are many game birds such as wild turkeys, different types of grouse and different ptarmigan species. Birds that have been introduced to North America, even though they may be established and are not invasive, are also not protected, such as the Himalayan snowcock, different myna species and the Eurasian tree sparrow.

As a rule, escaped or released pet birds are not protected, even when they have established feral colonies that may thrive for generations.

It is important to note that many birds that are protected by the treaty are not, in fact, migratory, and so the name “Migratory Bird Act” is a bit of a misnomer. It can be argued, however, that even birds that stay in the same range year-round do migrate in search of local food sources, and thus are considered migratory for the purposes of this legal protection.

Despite the confusion about which birds are and are not protected, more than 1,000 bird species are currently protected by the Migratory Bird Act.

Other Treaties Protecting Birds

The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 is not the only legislation designed to help protect birds. Several other treaties either seek to protect specific birds or provide conservation measures for many different birds, including:

Each of these pieces of legislation has been amended and altered to provide additional protections as necessary, and there are other international and domestic treaties, laws and policies that help protect birds.

Penalties for Violating the Migratory Bird Act

It is a federal crime to violate the Migratory Bird Act, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Types of violations may include:

  • Deliberately hunting protected birds
  • Poisoning birds with improperly used pesticides
  • Poaching birds for sale as pets
  • Destroying nests or disturbing nesting birds
  • Raising baby wild birds as pets
  • Raising “abandoned” baby wild birds with the intent to release them
  • Collecting wild bird feathers, nests or eggs

Punishments for these violations can vary based on the severity of the offense, the birds affected and the record of the individual charged. Misdemeanor violations can lead to fines up to $500 and up to six months in jail, while felony violations (typically crimes connected with an intent to sell, trade or barter birds) can have fines up to $2,000 and up to two years in jail. If multiple birds are affected, sentences can be stacked, leading to far more substantial fines and lengthy jail sentences.

Obey the Law

How can you be sure you are not violating the Migratory Bird Act? The best way to enjoy birds legally is to be aware of the law and to let wild birds stay wild and free. Avoid capturing or containing wild birds for any purpose, even with the best intentions, and take precautions that your property is a safe sanctuary for birds. With these easy steps, law-abiding birders will enjoy their feathered friends without fear of legal consequences.

Photo – U.S. Capitol © Jeff Gunn

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