By Lucas Cooksey, U.S. Army Environmental CommandJune 21, 2016
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first migratory bird treaty between the U.S. and Canada. This centennial year is being celebrated across the nation and is not only enhancing awareness of what the treaty entails, but is also promoting the best management practices, known as BMPs, that can benefit these avian species.
Migratory birds are key indicators for the health of our ecosystems; thus protecting them as part of our national heritage is an action all U.S. citizens should be proud to take part in.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act or MBTA, enacted by Congress two years after the treaty, served as a key protection measure to reduce and eliminate the unnecessary harvesting of colorful specimens to adorn hats and clothing at the turn of the last century. Though black and white photographs from the early 1900's reveal feathers as a major fashion statement for high society, this style came with a price to millions of birds killed every year for their plumes alone. Fortunately, many passionate individuals started a movement against such harvesting and eventually the issue gained momentum and was nationally recognized.
The MBTA has evolved throughout the past century and still stands as one of the longest natural resource related laws. Today the MBTA prohibits the unpermitted "take" of migratory birds and their parts, their active nests or eggs, and applies to all U.S. and Canadian citizens. This also applies to military installations, military training, and even residents on military bases, with few exceptions to the MBTA rules in certain scenarios.
In general, the Directorate of Public Works -- Environmental Division has responsibility for managing migratory birds on a military installation. This is accomplished through the implementation of comprehensive and integrated plans to enhance habitats and minimize harm, and through educational outreach on how all who live, work and play on DoD installations can support MBTA compliance.
Interestingly enough, there are only three situations on a military installation where migratory birds can be killed or harmed without violating the law. 1) Military Readiness Activities (50 CFR 21.3) including all training and operations of the Armed Forces that relate to combat, and the adequate and realistic testing of military equipment, vehicles, weapons, and sensors for proper operation and suitability for combat use. This does not cover routine installation operating support functions such as: administrative offices, military exchanges, commissaries, water treatment facilities, storage facilities, schools, housing, motor pools, laundries, or morale, welfare, and recreation activities. The Military Readiness Activities exemption only applies when it is determined that the activities would not result in a significant adverse effect on a population of migratory birds. 2) Through a permit, research or areas that have no other alternative, may take birds, if necessary. Typically permits are only issued when there is a direct threat to life, health, or safety related to people or property. An example is an airfield for flight safety or hospital entrances being free of bird feces for human health protection. 3) The permitted harvesting of migratory game birds through recreational hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its rulemaking processes and publication in the Federal Register, prescribe the species and numbers that may be harvested annually by hunters. These include many dove, duck, geese, crane and other migratory game bird species whose populations are sufficient enough to support such harvest.
Since there are only a few closely-controlled actions that allow the take of migratory birds, you may expect that their populations are thriving with the protection the MBTA provides. However, even with strict federal laws, migratory birds are rapidly declining due to many every-day occurrences that result in their incidental take to otherwise lawful activities.
Cars, building windows, power lines, and free roaming cats, just to name a few, have far greater impacts on migratory birds than all permitted activities combined. The extent to which these additional stressors affect bird populations is difficult to determine and is just recently being assessed. Yet, being aware of these common hazards for migratory birds, can help minimize unintentional impacts. Here are a few of the top examples where you can help.
According to the USFWS, the number one cause of bird mortality in the U.S. are cats, both feral and free-roaming individuals. Cats, even those well-fed by their owners, tend to kill indiscriminately due to their ingrained and instinctual behavior. While their hunting is not limited to just migratory birds, cats account for an estimated 2.4 billion avian deaths annually. The root cause of this issue is allowing domestic pets to roam free, which can ultimately result in unmanaged feral populations.
Unfortunately, the origin and solution to this problem is directly related to humans, and thus several programs have tried to reduce the number of outdoor cats. One such method is to Trap-Neuter-Release, though research shows it is an ineffective way in managing feral cat populations and impacts. The best management practices to reduce feral and free-roaming cats can be supported by both the military installation as a whole and by individuals who live, work and play on the installation. In accordance with the Armed Forces Pest Management Board Technical Guide 37, the installation should consider revising their overall cat policies to include a trap-euthanize program and mandatory microchipping program. Installation staff and residents can also do their part by keeping their cat indoors, microchipping, spay/neutering, and not feeding or harboring stray or feral animals. It is understandable that managing cats in any fashion is an emotional and sometimes politically charged issue, but it is one that cannot go unaddressed because of the major impacts they have on both migratory birds and small mammal species.
Window collisions are the second leading cause of mortality for migratory birds, and on the low end, at least 300 million birds die annually in this manner. Even though this form of impact is not as controversial as cat removal, it has best management practices with numerous benefits for both birds and people. Given the nature and human desire for clear windows, a peril and problem is created where birds do not see the glass and thus collide with this unseen obstacle. Minimizing bird/window collisions is fairly easy and can be done simply by making the window more visible.
At an installation scale, applying a pattern to windows and large glass surfaces makes them more visible to birds, and in some instances, more temperature efficient for residents inside. It also reduces excessive glint and glare that can sometime present issues for vehicle drivers and pilots alike. Other alternatives are using window blinds and shades, as well as moving indoor plants and outdoor feeders away from windows, reducing attractants adjacent to them. Finally, turning out lights at night is the easiest action that greatly reduces window collisions. Many bird species actually migrate in the dark, and thus decreasing the amount of ambient light results in less confusion during their long seasonal flights.
A few other considerations to help comply with the MBTA and minimize incidental take is not to remove active nests for any reason without the appropriate permit. Reduce outdoor entanglements/entrapments such as mesh, wires, and open pipes. Properly use and store chemicals according to their labeled instructions to reduce accidental poisoning. Educate others about migratory birds, their threats, and areas where every individual can make a difference.
As the MBTA celebrates its 100th anniversary, we can all do our part to respect and reduce the impacts we have on migratory birds. Thankfully, with the USFWS as the lead agency for the MBTA, the public has access to numerous resources for individuals and corporations alike to take action.
If everyone makes an effort to support bird conservation, then impacts will be noticeable, especially when the majority of these practices relate directly to individual or installation wide benefits. Though the future for some migratory birds is unclear, it is important that everyone does their share in keeping our environment and ecosystems healthy. By doing this, we are giving birds a chance to survive and thrive for future generations to enjoy.