Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Celebrate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act! #YearoftheBird

by Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

2018 is the Year of the Bird, and the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. What is the MBTA and why is it still relevant?

When walking through the woods, it’s not uncommon to find a gorgeous feather lying on the ground. The iridescent plume seems like a natural keepsake, but it surprises many to learn that it’s actually illegal to keep wild bird feathers. Taking the loose feather doesn’t seem like a crime—what could be the reason for this law? The answer is fascinating, and deeply rooted in bird conservation and United States history.
Back in the 1800s, the “chanticleer”, or a hat made of bird feathers, was the height of fashion for women. Demand for feathers led hunters to decimate bird populations in pursuit of pure white plumes, and soon many species that once “blackened the skies” with their numbers were nearly or totally extinct. 200 years ago, there were no government protections for our wildlife, and so several environmentally conscious people took it upon themselves to begin the fight for birds. The very first Audubon societies were formed, often by women boycotting the fashionable hats, who hoped that one day wearing bird feathers would be seen as “a brand of ignorance”.

Many women pioneered early bird conservation efforts.
Eventually, the federal government caught up to these early conservationists. In a joint resolution with Canada, and later Mexico, Japan, and Russia, the United States passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (or the MBTA), which made it unlawful to “hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell birds” whether they are alive or dead, and protects bird parts “including feathers, eggs, and nests”. The logic behind the prohibition of parts is that Fish and Wildlife has no way of knowing whether someone killed the bird to gets its feathers, or whether the eggs were still viable when they were collected. Over 800 species of birds are currently listed, and many of them owe their continued existence to this law. Although raptors were not protected by the law until 1972 (the same year VINS was founded!) their inclusion reflected a realization of their importance to our ecosystems. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service issues permits that allow certain people to conduct activities otherwise prohibited by the MBTA. Examples include those for taxidermy, falconry, captive breeding, scientific use, educational use, and depredation (such as removing birds from places where they pose a serious risk to humans or human activity).

VINS wildlife rehabilitators work hard
to keep our education birds healthy.
At VINS, we are always conscious of the MBTA and its sweeping impact. Because of the law, we are able to teach with some of the most magnificent creatures on Earth—wild raptors—as they still thrive and were not hunted to extinction. We also hold permits to rehabilitate certain species, and keep feathers for educational use. The permitting process is long and rigorous, to ensure we are taking the best possible care of these wild animals.

What if you find a feather at VINS? Again, you can’t keep it, but you can hand it off to a staff member. We actually use dropped feathers in a medical procedure called imping—literally implanting a new feather in the old shaft of a bird whose feathers have broken. The newly feathered bird can then get back into the wild much more quickly, and the old dropped feather gets to feel the wind beneath it again.

Want to do your part? Spread the word about the United States’ pioneering bird conservation! Sign this pledge to take a simple, meaningful action for birds each month this year:

Join us and our partners across the globe to make 2018 the Year of the Bird!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Winter Storm: Snowy Owl

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

VINS Ambassador "Snowy" - Allegra Boverman
Winter has barely begun, and it is already shaping up to be another Snowy Owl irruption year! These stunning, mysterious arctic visitors will find themselves looking farther than usual for a wide, expanse of hunting ground to pass the winter, delighting those of us who may get a chance to glimpse them before they return to the tundra.

But what is an irruption? The word means an abrupt increase in the natural population of an animal in one area (not to be confused with eruption, and abrupt increase in the amount of lava in an area).

Many animal populations go through cycles of high and low numbers, and the arctic ecosystem is no exception. The lemming, a medium-sized rodent that thrives in the tundra, is also known as the “pacemaker” of the arctic, because of how much their abundance affects other species. In years of high lemming abundance, Snowy Owls tend to lay larger clutches of eggs (the difference between 2 eggs per clutch, and 14), which leads to higher populations of Snowy Owls the following winter.

These owls can’t all inhabit the Arctic together, so some pack a few lemmings for a long journey south, wandering into southern Canada, east and west to Russia and Asia, and very occasionally, as far south as Florida.

A Snowy Owl nest stocked with 70+ lemmings - Christine Blais-Soucy
Scientists used to believe that these irruptions of lemmings and owls followed a fairly regular cycle, of every 5-8 years. Seeing as the last noticeable Snowy Owl irruption occurred in the winter of 2013-2014, this seems to hold up, but irruptions don’t occur at the same time everywhere in the country, and there may be no predictable pattern.

According to Project SNOWstorm, which tracks Snowy Owls in the US, most Snowys seen during an irruption year are healthy, efficient hunters; some of them are even fat. This is the general trend, but of course not all of them are so lucky. VINS’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation has already seen two Snowy Owl patients this year, both suffering from severe malnutrition.

Snowy Owls have been popping up all across the landscape of Vermont already, since the end of November: one at the Vermont Technical College in Randolph, another on a bridge in Colchester, a few at Chimney Point, Grand Isle, and even at the Burlington Airport. This individual probably should have chosen a better spot to hunt, and was luckily relocated by VT Fish andWildlife.

VINS Ambassador "LaGuardia" - Allegra Boverman
The last major irruption in 2013-2014 saw the arrival of one of VINS’s resident raptors, LaGuardia. This young male owl was found at the airport of the same name, and had broken both of his wings by getting to close to the exhaust from a jet engine. Snowy Owls seem to choose airports as foraging grounds, as they may resemble the treeless expanse of the arctic they are used to.

LaGuardia is now an ambassador for his species, and you can come meet him and his neighbor, Snowy, at VINS next weekend! Join us at VINS on Saturday, December 16th for Snowy Owl Appreciation Day, when you can enjoy owl-themed crafts, meet our flock of education owls, and warm up with hot cocoa and while watching a documentary about Snowy Owls!