Any approach to conservation of migratory birds requires international cooperation because many bird species breed in one country and spend the winter in another. During migration, they often pass through other countries as well. Anywhere along their migration route, they may be killed.
The Reason for an International Conservation Agreement for Birds
In 1919, George Lawyer, Chief U.S. Game Warden, wrote: “The myriads of migratory birds that fairly astounded the early explorers… inspired the writing of volumes of literature. These volumes have told of the wanton and thoughtless slaughter of the birds, and have given warning of their certain disappearance with the settlement of the country and the usurpation of the forests, fields, and streams that had furnished shelter, food, and breeding places…”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was evident that the birds of North America were disappearing. They were shot for sport and for food, killed for their feathers, even used as animal feed. The Passenger Pigeon was already doomed, the Wood Duck was threatened, and many other species had dwindled alarmingly. Migrating flocks were targeted by hunters, often when the birds were on their way north in spring to breed.
The History of the Migratory Bird Convention
As migrating birds decreased, various groups voiced their concerns: hunters worried that they would soon have nothing to hunt; farmers worried that insect pests would increase; wildlife organizations worried about environment and the beauty of the natural world. The governments of Canada and the United States recognized that they had to stop the slaughter, and that they would have to cooperate to do it.
The Migratory Bird Convention was signed by the United States and Britain (on behalf of Canada) in 1916, but it didn’t contain any means of enforcement: both countries had to enact legislation. The United States passed the Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1918 and gave responsibility for enforcement to the U.S. Biological Survey. In the same year, the Migratory Birds Treaty Act gave responsibility to the Canadian Department of the Interior.
The Migratory Bird Convention was amended in 1995, primarily to resolve issues with native people, and others who depend on subsistence hunting in the North. Both countries have also amended their legislation to include bird species such as raptors, crows and cormorants, which were originally excluded as pest birds.
Today, the United States has similar treaties with Mexico, Russia, and Japan.
How the Conservation Agreement Works
The Migratory Bird Convention and the accompanying legislation protect birds by:
Prohibiting hunting of all but game birds, and prohibiting hunting of game birds in the spring before they have had a chance to breed.
Limiting the number of game birds that can be taken by hunters.
Prohibiting damage or collection of nests, eggs, or bird parts.
Prohibiting the harassment, capture, and trafficking of native birds.
Requiring permits for the killing of non-game birds.
Migratory bird legislation limits the hunting season to the period between September 01 to March 10 (with rare exceptions), and to a period of not longer than 3.5 months in any one area. Dates and limits are set annually by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, based on surveys and long term trends.
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