This past month my backyard has hosted nearly an entire rainbow of birds: scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, bobolinks, tree swallows, indigo buntings and purple finches galore. As a novice birder, the bright, distinguishable colors boost my identification confidence. They also draw in my toddling daughter. You don’t know cute until a newly verbal child says, “Bobolink! I see!” and grabs for your binoculars.
Spring migration is an exciting time for birders of any age. During peak migration in mid-May, Maine Audubon hosts daily morning bird walks in the Portland area. People love these birds for their vibrant color and cheerful songs, and because they connect us to far-flung places, captivating us as we consider the extent of their journey.
For example, the gorgeous magnolia warbler my daughter and I spotted in my backyard had simply dropped in for a snack on its way from its winter home in Belize to its breeding grounds in Newfoundland. This tiny bird, weighing just a third of an ounce, had already flown nearly 3,000 miles and had another 1,000 to go. This magnolia warbler graced my backyard with its presence, but I know it’s not my bird. Stewardship of this and millions of other migratory birds is a responsibility shared by the citizens and governments of countries all along the birds’ migratory routes.
That responsibility was memorialized in 1918 when Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The act fulfilled U.S. commitments in treaties with Canada, Japan, Mexico and Russia to protect birds from threats that included unrestrained commercial and recreational hunting, fueled by the demand for feathers on ladies’ hats. Hundreds of species faced extinction, including the now widespread snowy egret.
The act protects more than 1,000 species, most of which are not protected by other laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Until recently, the act protected migratory birds by holding individuals or organizations responsible if their actions harm migratory birds — even if those actions were not intentional. Under the act, for example, fines were levied after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker wreck in 1989. The act has been the tool the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has used to encourage industry to implement basic management practices to protect birds, such as covering oil waste pits and installing flashing lights (which don’t attract birds) on towers.
In 2017, the 100th anniversary of the act, the Trump administration issued a legal memorandum that “reinterpreted” it to exempt utility and energy companies from compliance and only protect migratory birds against purposeful killing and unauthorized hunting. The result? There is no incentive to avoid business practices that knowingly harm or kill birds. The act has been gutted.
But at a time when it’s far too often easy to feel powerless against threats to our environment, legislation will soon be submitted in the Senate and House that would right the wrongs of the “reinterpretation.” The bills would make it crystal-clear that the act applies to unintentional harm to migratory birds and would create an incidental take permit program, similar to a program in Maine, that forgives industry that uses best practices yet occasionally harms protected species.
Maine Audubon met with Maine’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., to share the details of the legislation. We were heartened by their interest and the connections they made to their experiences enjoying Maine’s birds. We’re hopeful that as the details of the legislation are finalized, they will add their names as co-sponsors and support the bill. With their help, my family and families around the state will continue marveling at the rainbows of songbirds that visit Maine each spring.
Eliza Donoghue is Maine Audubon’s senior policy and advocacy specialist. She and her family look for birds in their backyard in Brunswick.