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: www.birdyourworld.org.
Join us and our partners across the globe to make 2018 the Year of the Bird!