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The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: the Good, the Bad, and How You Can Help

A flock of gulls soaring over the tide pools of Little Corona Del Mar. Photo by OC Habitats.

Whether you consider yourself to be an environmentalist or someone who enjoys watching the birds in your backyard, you may have heard of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law prohibits the take of native migratory bird species without prior authorization by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This includes the killing, selling, and transportation of these birds along with their nests and eggs. This act was enacted back in 1918, a time when millions of birds were being killed each year for the production of feathered hats, leading many bird species such as the snowy egret and the great egret to populations near extinction. Public outcry over the protection of these birds ensued which led to the passing of this act.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected great egrets like this one from going extinct. Photo by OC Habitats.

This law provided an immense amount of benefits to the lives of birds across the continent. Birds were finally able to fly between nesting sites without the risk of getting poached for their meat, skin, or feathers. It helped to restore bird populations that dwindled due to hunting and continues to protect over 1,000 native bird species today.

While there has been some political debate over the years, as discussed in a previous newsletter (linked here), there are some other issues with this act that still stand. Although the number of birds lost to hunting has declined, there are other anthropogenic sources of bird deaths that have yet to be addressed. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, millions of birds are killed each year through man-made sources such as building collisions and outdoor cats. This is mainly due to the reflective windows found on many buildings which reflect the sky and surrounding trees. Birds fly into these windows thinking that it is the sky or they may even see their own reflection, leading to a territorial attack and a smash against the window. Domesticated cats often prey on birds as well due to their natural instincts to hunt. This behavior can become destructive, as cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild. While hunting may not be as prominent anymore, humans are still contributing to the decline of bird populations in other ways.

Windows that reflect the sky and trees can confuse birds and lead to collisions. Photo by Damien Pollet.

So, what does this mean? Well, as of right now, it is not illegal to have shiny windows or to let your cat outside. However, there are ways you can take action to protect the birds besides not hunting them for their feathers. One great thing you can do is install screens on your windows to block birds from crashing into them. There are also window films and patterns available that are invisible from the inside, but prevent reflections on the outside. In addition, consider getting an outdoor cat enclosure, that is, if you have a cat, that will not only protect the birds from your cat, but will also protect your cat from predators like coyotes. However, if you insist on letting your cat roam outdoors, consider giving them a collar with a bell that will warn birds when the cat comes close. Don’t worry, studies have shown that cats are unaffected by the sounds of bells. Alternatively, there are brightly colored cat bibs that have been proven to alert birds as well.

Here is an example of a DIY outdoor cat enclosure that connects to a window. Photo by Cynthia Chomos.

Remember, if you find an injured bird, it is best to either leave it alone or call a local wildlife rehabilitation agency. A complete list of agencies can be found here.

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