Other Relevant Laws

International Treaties

In additional to the conventions implemented by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, the United States is party to two other international treaties that afford special protection to migratory birds.

  •  Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitats)
  •  Antarctic Treaty (designed to protect the native birds, mammals, and plants of the Antarctic)

Other Domestic Laws affecting birds


Endangered Species Act of 1973

The purpose of the  Endagnered Species Act is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend. Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. "Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program maintains a  current list of birds protected by the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.

The  Endangered Species Act is also the domestic law that implements the United States' commitment to two international treaties that contain important provisions for the protection of migratory birds:

  •  CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
  •  Pan American Convention (Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere).

Lacey Act

By the late 1800s, hunting and shipment of birds for the commercial market (to embellish the platters of elegant restaurants) and the plume trade (to provide feathers to adorn ladies' fancy hats) had taken their toll on many bird species. Passenger pigeons, whose immense flocks had once darkened the skies, were nearing extinction. Populations of the Eskimo curlew and other shorebirds had been decimated. The snowy egret and other colonial-nesting wading birds had been reduced to remnants of their historical populations.

Passed on May 25, 1900, the  Lacey Act prohibited game taken illegally in one state from being shipped across state boundaries contrary to the laws of the state where taken. The Lacey Act is an effective tool for enforcing wildlife laws of the States and the Federal government (a  detailed synopsis is available). However, in the early 20th century, the Act was ineffective in stopping interstate shipments, largely because of the huge profits enjoyed by the market hunters and the lack of officers to enforce the law. The early failures of the Lacey Act led to passage of the Weeks-McLean Law.


Weeks-McLean Law

The Weeks-McLean Law, which became effective on March 4, 1913, was designed to stop commercial market hunting and the illegal shipment of migratory birds from one state to another. The Act boldly proclaimed that:

"All wild geese, wild swans, brant, wild ducks, snipe, plover, woodcock, rail, wild pigeons, and all other migratory game and insectivorous birds which in their northern and southern migrations pass through or do not remain permanently the entire year within the borders of any State or Territory, shall hereafter be deemed to be within the custody and protection of the Government of the United States, and shall not be destroyed or taken contrary to regulations hereinafter provided therefor."

Weeks-McLean rested on weak constitutional grounds, having been passed as a rider to an appropriation bill for the Department of Agriculture, and it was soon replaced by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Last Updated: September 26, 2018