Endangered Species Handbook

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Migratory Bird Treaty Act

     Signed in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) between Great Britain on behalf of Canada and the United States prohibited the killing of non-game migratory birds.  This Treaty represented decades of effort by conservationists attempting to stop the slaughter of native birds for sale in meat markets and the millinery trade.  A patchwork of state laws, bolstered by the Lacey Act of 1900, had not been entirely successful in stopping the sale of protected wildlife, especially birds, in the United States.  In addition, it was recognized that many of the birds killed in the United States were Canadian in origin.  The continent's birds do not recognize national boundaries.  Moreover, many species migrate between North America, Russia and Japan.  Others winter in, or migrate through, Mexico.  In 1936, Mexico became a signatory; in 1976, the Soviet Union; and in 1972, Japan.  Sea birds and birds of prey were added to the MBTA in 1972 in a signed agreement with Mexico.  All these Treaties are implemented under the Act.  Except for those birds hunted during seasons established by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, all migratory birds are protected by law from killing, capture, possession and sale.  The USFWS, through its Law Enforcement Division, has interpreted the MBTA strictly.
     Some 65 species of birds can be legally hunted in the United States under regulations promulgated annually by the Department of the Interior.  These birds include most species of ducks, geese, swans, wild pigeons, doves, Sandhill Cranes, American Woodcock, grouse, crows, Wild Turkey and quail.
     For the majority of the estimated 800 species of birds breeding in North America, the MBTA has allowed recovery from the disastrous free-for-all market hunting of the 19th and early 20th centuries that caused the extinctions of the Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew and Heath Hen, and the near extinction of many others.  The Act also prohibits the capture of live birds for the cage bird trade.  It is not legal to trap Cardinals, American Robins, Blue Jays or other songbirds, either for use as personal pets or for sale in pet stores.  While most Americans are aware of the protection of their native birds, an increasing number of problems have arisen involving immigrants from countries where birds are not protected.  While knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and many aspects of U.S. history are required for citizenship exams, little or no knowledge of laws relating to wildlife and natural resources is required, nor is such information given to newly arrived immigrants.
     The regulations prohibit, except as allowed under specific conditions,
the taking, possession, purchase, sale, or bartering of any migratory bird, including the feathers or other parts, nests, eggs or migratory bird products. "Taking" is defined as pursuing, hunting, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing, capturing, trapping, or collecting migratory birds.  Migratory bird hunting regulations established by the USFWS allow, during designated seasons, the taking of ducks, geese, doves, rai, woodcock and some other species.  In addition, permits may be granted for various noncommercial activities involving birds bred in captivity. Individuals and organizations may be fined up to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively, and those convicted may face up to six months imprisonment for misdemeanor violations of the Act.  Felony violations may result in fines of up to $25,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations and up to two years imprisonment for those convicted.
     For the future, binding treaties with Latin American and Caribbean nations would protect North American birds wintering in those countries.  This would be especially important in view of the decline in many of the continent's songbirds and shorebirds, partly attributable to deforestation on the birds' wintering grounds.  In some Latin American countries, North American shorebirds are hunted for food.

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