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This Is For The Birds

By Peter McKenzie Brown
September 7, 2018 | Comments

Editors’ Note: Critica follower and contributor Peter McKenzie-Brown, who lives in Canada, writes about his experience as a birder, something about which we at Critica previously knew very little. But beyond telling us some interesting things about birds and birding, the article discloses a now all-too-familiar twisting of facts to favor profit over science. Scientists have made great strides in understanding the details of bird migration between the U.S. and Canada, in the process giving us important information about our environment. The current US administration wants to cancel treaties based on that research that protect migrating birds, justifying this by claiming it will protect people from being prosecuted for non-criminal acts. In fact, McKenzie-Brown explains here, the treaties have never been used to do that and the real beneficiary of cancelling the treaties will be industries who find regulations that protect birds migrating between the two countries inconvenient for their bottom lines.

You Do What To Those Pretty Little Creatures? Why?

Over the course of a normal year, 914 species of wild bird occur naturally north of the US/Mexican border. Of these, 426 species reside in Canada over the course of of a normal year. For me and probably many other birders (the uninitiated call us “birdwatchers”), one of the great pleasures of this hobby is that birds lure us out of the city into the natural world.

As my interest in birds grew, a friend acquainted me with the practice of bird banding. I am one of many volunteers who help him band the beautiful Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows that breed in a large swathe of foothills west of Calgary, Alberta. Both species winter in the southern USA and northern Mexico, and migrate to Canada to breed.

There were dramatic reductions in the populations of these (and many other species) during the mid-20th Century because of changes in predation, farming, and forestry practices, and competition from other species, notably the European Starling. This led to the development of “Bluebird Trails” – volunteer-made nesting boxes placed at intervals along highways and byways to provide relatively safe breeding sites for the Bluebirds. Opportunistic Tree Swallows, which spend their winters even further south in Mexico, soon acquired a liking for these nesting boxes. Volunteers maintain the boxes, keep records of nesting successes, and in many cases also band the birds.

Our efforts are a minuscule part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We attach bands on the baby birds’ legs just before they are about to leave their nest box, or, on an adult if we capture it in the nest. If banded birds are ever recaptured, or if someone finds a band on their legs after they die, the ornithological community gains a better understanding of their migration patterns and changes in their behavior over a well-defined period of time. The bands themselves do not harm the birds or hamper their activities in any way.

The practice of bird banding is a logical continuation of bird-watching. It reflects the simple reality that people need nature to be happy – and little in nature is lovelier than birds and birdsong in the wild. For the nations of the Americas, they are a shared resource. Tragically, in my view, many millions of songbirds and others are at risk because of recent political developments south of Canada’s border. More on that, later.

Citizen Science

Bird banding is a remarkable example of citizen science. It involves the efforts of large numbers of volunteers to help keep track of the movements of individual birds and their life histories. Banders and their assistants tend to be retired women and men, in roughly equal numbers.

In Canada, twenty-seven primary sites (the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network) track the movement of birds during spring and fall migration, primarily using both observation and banding techniques. Licensed banders and their volunteer assistants are afield before dawn during the migration seasons. They capture birds mainly by erecting fine-meshed \ nets in areas of known bird movement. They sex, age, weigh and measure them, and make general assessments of each bird’s health as they band it.

At many of the primary sites in Canada, birds have been banded for many years. The Long Point Observatory on Lake Erie in Ontario began banding in 1960. On 29th May, 2017, volunteers at that site banded their one millionth bird. These long-term, continuous records are vital to understanding changes in population and species movement in our rapidly changing world. The findings of these studies demonstrate clearly that many migrant species are declining in numbers. They are vulnerable on their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds, and throughout their migration route.

Bird banding involves attaching a small, individually numbered aluminum or colored plastic tag to the leg of a wild bird prior to its release. These data are maintained in a central depository, available online. If you find a banded bird, dead or alive, report the band number, date and location to How To Report A Banded Bird in Canada, or, in the US, Reporting Banded Birds.

Technical Advances

Most birds are migratory, and the North American Migratory Bird Treaty recognizes that the countries through which they travel on these migrations need to protect them.

Amidst the chaos of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916. The 100th anniversary of this event, which the two countries celebrated in Ottawa, was just two years ago. In 1918, the US passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – legislation which 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 allowed by permit. When Canada updated the Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1994, we kept the legislation consistent with what was, at that time, still US standards.

The result was a far greater understanding of bird migration patterns. For example, in the 1930’s, an American researcher established that North American birds migrate within the continent through four predictable corridors. It also became clear that billions of birds migrate from North America’s Arctic tundra and boreal forest, most of which is in Canada. A strengthened scientific consensus led to growing efforts to protect boreal lakes and forests, which constitute our biggest hatchery.

Recent technological developments are helping uncover the mysteries of bird migration, yielding detailed data about the hemispheric-scale movements of migratory birds. Most importantly, these technologies provide information about what we can do to better protect birds, using increasingly sophisticated approaches in keeping with advancing technology. For example, satellite tracking and geolocation technologies now provide detailed accounts of when and where birds move, and the places they stop in between. This reveals areas where habitat protection is critical. Compared to banding, however, geo-tracking is an expensive way to obtain data.

The enormous strides in genetic analysis in recent decades are rapidly changing our understanding of breeding populations. Many species are now being split into subspecies as a result of such data. Some species are being assigned to different families as greater understanding of DNA helps us to understand their evolution.

Perhaps the most important advancement is the recent development of eBird by Cornell University. This program allows citizens, anywhere on earth, to submit bird sightings to a central data base. As it expands and software becomes more sophisticated, many different studies can be made of the size and distribution of bird populations, both historically and in real time. Anyone interested in birds and in helping to ensure the continued survival of these species should use these data and submit their sightings to the database. You can download apps from the site without charge.

For bird banders, a computer program named Bandit is the latest in a series of desktop applications aimed at helping them manage and submit their data for banded birds. Its use makes maintaining banding records much simpler.

Banders use the no-charge software to store data obtained during banding operations. At the end of the season, Canadian banders use it to transfer their data to an Ottawa agency, which shares it with the American agency.

Are Politics now Failing our Birds?

We must never become complacent about the survival of birds. The Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America in the early 19th Century, with a population of perhaps 5 billion birds. From the early 1800’s to the 1890’s, most of the birds were shot for food or as entertainment. “Martha,” the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914,

The efforts of this continent’s ornithologists, with the help of an army of banders and other enthusiasts, long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats – vast in extent, to survive in our natural world. These habitats range from breeding areas (mainly in Canada), to their wintering ranges, with innumerable habitats in between – especially in and around wetlands. Between them, the Arctic tundra and the boreal forest annually export somewhere between three billion and five billion birds to populate the winter ecosystems of the Americas, from southern Canada and the contiguous American states, into Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Despite the efforts of the birding community, critical nesting grounds have long been at risk, mainly due to increasing development pressures and climate change. These likely unstoppable problems in recent years encountered another threat. This originated with the recent reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by America’s Interior Department. As a result, the US President has signed a decree which, to large degree, guts this policy.

America’s Interior Department issued a legal opinion that reinterpreted the act to exclude “incidental take.” This opinion argued that fear of “unlimited potential for criminal prosecution” could lead to cat owners being prosecuted for letting their pets attack migratory birds. Similarly, drivers who accidentally killed birds with their cars might be charged with crimes. In practice, the act had never been enforced in that way. It was applied to cases of gross negligence where potential harm should have been anticipated and avoided, such as discharging toxic pesticide-contaminated water into ponds used by migratory birds.

In her commentary on the recent reinterpretation of the act, Professor Amanda Rodewald – who serves as Director of Conservation Science in Cornell University’s ornithology department –suggested that industry will be the primary beneficiary of this new interpretation. In her view, “This new reading of the law means” that “corporations and others who fill in wetlands will escape liability for actions that could kill millions of birds every year.” By creating fabricated fears of innocent people being arrested for inadvertently hurting birds—something that has never happened in the decades these migratory bird protection laws have existed—the current US administration appears prepared to decimate serious agreements between the US and Canada that have clearly worked to protect a vital part of our environment.

Citizen scientists make contributions to many scientific fields. It is an activity we want to encourage because it invigorates the public’s participation in and understanding of the scientific process. Of course, the most important problem with the new US interpretation of the Migratory Bird Act is that it puts millions of birds in peril. There is another significant issue, however: the reinterpretation of the law it is a subtle way of messaging to ordinary citizens that corporate profits are more important than the efforts of individuals trying to save birds through science.

It’s more than enough to make a birder cry.

Author’s note: Thanks to Dave Russum, Bill Taylor and Gus Yaki for their comments on this article.

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