Earth Notes: Year of the Bird

May 9, 2018

A hundred years ago, migratory birds suddenly became much safer, thanks to the outrage of two Victorian-era Boston women. Their efforts led to passage of landmark legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To mark the centennial of that important law, 2018 has been declared Year of the Bird.

Snowy egret
Credit Bill Blaker

A hundred years ago, migratory birds suddenly became much safer, thanks to the outrage of two Victorian-era Boston women. Their efforts led to passage of landmark legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To mark the centennial of that important law, 2018 has been declared Year of the Bird.

In the late 1800s, fashionable ladies wore hats decorated with masses of feathers, even entire dead birds. Snowy egrets were especially coveted for their elegant, pure white, breeding plumes.  Hunters decimated entire colonies of them, nearly to extinction.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway read an article describing the carnage of birds merely for their feathers. Over cups of tea with her cousin Minna Hall, they devised a strategy to save the birds. The two recruited women to boycott the feather industry; enlisted nature writers, librarians, and teachers to educate people about birds; and restarted a bird conservation club and called it Audubon.  

In 1918 the efforts succeeded with passage of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It outlawed the killing of wild birds and possessing or selling any of their parts, including feathers.  That included snowy egrets, which breed in the Southwest along the Lower Colorado and Gila rivers and the Rio Grande.  These birds then made a dramatic comeback.

But now, along with hundreds of other species, they’re again in decline due to habitat loss, pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and possibly climate change.

Year of the Bird, sponsored by National Audubon Society, National Geographic Society, and others, is a call to people everywhere to renew efforts to protect migratory birds.

Next week, how citizen scientists are helping in studies of birds in national parks.