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100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Andy McCormick

You will be hearing a lot about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in 2018, because it marks the 100th anniversary of its passage in 1918. It is estimated that the act has saved the lives of millions of birds. There is also a threat to the act from the Trump administration which wants to weaken the “incidental take” provision of the law. This would allow industry to kill birds in the course of their work and not face a penalty.


The Basics of the Law

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior. Some regulatory exceptions apply. Take is defined in regulations as: ‘pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect’ ” (Audubon Policy Office).  It is a very comprehensive law.

The original law was an agreement with Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, and covered migratory birds in North America. In 1936 the law was amended to include an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Another amendment in 1974 included the agreement between the U.S. and Japan, and in 1978 an agreement with Russia (then the Soviet Union) was added. These improvements in the law also specified that these countries would work together “to protect identified ecosystems of special importance to migratory birds against pollution, detrimental alterations, and other environmental degradations.”

What Energy Companies Want

Rep. Liz Cheney has proposed an amendment to the SECURE American Energy Act which “would end enforcement of any incidental take, which means that oil companies and other industries would no longer be held responsible for bird deaths resulting from their activities” (Audubon Policy Office).

Take Action

The National Audubon Society is campaigning against this amendment. You can go to their website at and click on the button to Stop the Bird Killer Amendment.

National Audubon was instrumental in the passage of the MBTA in 1918, and it stopped the trade in egret plumes and migratory birds. It most likely prevented the extinction of the Snowy Egret. The law needs to remain strong and we in Audubon have a special responsibility to see that it does. Please contact your Congressperson to tell them to vote against this amendment.

Trumpeter Swans, by Mick Thompson

Photo: Trumpeter Swans, by Mick Thompson.

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