Working across borders is essential for birds, but also people
© U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With political divisiveness so often headlining the news, how refreshing it is to celebrate a centennial that demonstrates the power of countries coming together. One hundred years ago, the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) came together for birds when they signed the Migratory Bird Treaty, a convention to protect migratory birds across international borders.

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At the time, populations of many birds were plummeting due to poorly regulated hunting. The plume trade, for which an estimated 5 million birds — especially waterbirds like egrets and herons — were killed each year for feathers to adorn hats, eventually incited people to action. In response, the landmark treaty and subsequent act to enforce it (the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests, except as permitted through hunting regulations for game birds.

What made this treaty particularly inspiring was that President Woodrow Wilson and King George V made the pledge amid the chaos of World War I. Soon after, the treaty was used as a model for similar agreements with Mexico (in 1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976). The Migratory Bird Treaties and subsequent international collaborations to conserve birds show how, when taken together, these global and hemispheric actions are far more than the sum of their parts. Collectively, these efforts are paving a path forward to protect birds and the ecosystems on which both birds and people depend.

International efforts are necessary to conserve migratory birds because birds don't recognize geopolitical borders. Over the course of a year, songbirds, like the magnolia warbler, may spend 80 days breeding in the boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada, 30 days at resting and refueling sites during migration, and over 200 days overwintering in Latin American countries like Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. 

Looking back at the last 100 years, it's heartening to see that where we acted together, we had success. The plume trade was virtually halted, and populations of herons, egrets and ibises rebounded. Waterfowl, too, have benefited tremendously from multinational habitat restoration and careful hunting management, in part guided by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and transformative legislation like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act that leveraged billions in funding for restoration and conservation of over 30 million acres in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Hunters and sportspeople were instrumental in this success, as they became the key drivers of conservation. Our investments have paid off: Populations of waterfowl and other waterbirds have increased, and the wetlands protected along the way now keep our drinking water clean and reduce flood risk.

But we need to do more. Unlike a century ago, when hunting decimated bird populations, today's threats are more insidious. Birds are often collateral damage when habitat is lost and exotic species invade, and they are further endangered by collision with buildings and other structures, contamination, and even seemingly innocuous choices like letting our cats roam freely outdoors. These pervasive threats span geopolitical borders and, consequently, are best addressed through coordinated international action. Indeed, the recent "The State of North America's Birds 2016" report indicates that without conservation action, over one-third of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction.

As we approach the next 100 years of conservation, we must remember that bird conservation is not only about birds; it's about people, as well. We derive so many benefits from healthy bird populations, including pollination, seed dispersal, insect control and other ecosystem services. Birds also help us to understand the world around us and connect us with nature. And birds are a critical economic resource as well. Activities like hunting and birdwatching contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy alone. In fact, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative was originally created by the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 1999 to recognize birds as an international "natural economic resource."

The bottom line is that habitats healthy for birds are also healthy for people. We must work with diverse partners and stakeholders to identify conservation approaches, like sustainable forestry, that meet the needs of local communities and conserve birds and other species. Looking ahead, I believe that an integrated approach, where social and ecological needs are both accommodated, will be the hallmark of the next century of bird conservation. 

Rodewald is the Garvin Professor of ornithology and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.


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