2018: The Year of the Bird

2018: The Year of the Bird

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To celebrate the hundredth birthday of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a coalition of wildlife organizations has named 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” National Audubon, National Geographic, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, BirdLife International, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and dozens of other organizations will celebrate the importance of birds in our lives and the role they play in the web of life.

Bird watching is one of America’s fastest growing hobbies; with some 47 million fans. But in the late 1800s it was more fashionable to wear them than to watch them. Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats. In 1886, a New York ornithologist named Frank Chapman went on an unusual “birdwatching” excursion to uptown Manhattan. Instead of live birds, he set out to count the number of women’s hats adorned with wild bird feathers or body parts of wild birds. Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their disembodied parts. Some had not only feathers, but also the eyes, wings, and in some cases, entire bodies of birds. Chapman counted 40 different bird species among them. Boston socialites Harriet Hemmenway and Minna Hall were outraged when they read how commercial hunters were wiping out entire colonies of egrets, terns and herons to supply plumage for the millenary trade. They organized parlor teas to boycott the use of wild bird feathers in women’s hats, and soon had 900 signers. They formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, one of the first of many Audubon groups to spring up around the country. Their movement led directly to state and federal legislation that ended the commercial trade in wild bird feathers. In 1905, the various Audubon organizations merged to become the National Audubon Society.

On August 16, 1916, the U.S. signed a treaty with Canada, giving sweeping protection to most migratory birds. In 1918, it became federal law as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). This effectively outlawed the commercial slaughter of wild birds to provide plumage for women’s hats. The law kept bird species like the Snowy Egret and Trumpeter Swan from going the way of the Passenger Pigeon.

Today, birds face unprecedented threats to their existence that the MBTA could have not anticipated, such as wind turbines, illuminated skyscrapers, beacon lights on towers, reflective glass windows, oil pits, and domestic cats, to name a few. The MBTA is in need of expansion and updating. It also needs to be vigorously defended against repeated attempts to undermine enforcement.

Visit the “Year of the Bird” website, BirdYourWorld.org to learn about simple steps you can take to help birds, and how small collective actions, stewardship and citizen science can make a difference for birds and nature. (National Audubon photos: Wild bird feathers were the fashion rage in women’s hats in the late 1890s and early 1900s, prompting the slaughter and near extinction of Trumpeter Swans, Snowy Egrets and other wild birds.)

By Gene Bullock, Kitsap Audubon Kingfisher, Feb. 2018