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A great horned owl.  Photo by Brendan Lally/Creative Commons.

A great horned owl.  Photo by Brendan Lally/Creative Commons.

The Migratory Bird Treaty – A Century of Bird Conservation

A century ago the conservation landscape across North America was much different for migratory birds. In the 1800s, the unregulated killing of migratory birds put many species at risk throughout North America. Feathers from waterbirds such as egrets and herons were highly prized by the fashion industry; while other species, including waterfowl and shorebirds, were pursued extensively by market hunters. Barrels full of harvested ducks were regularly shipped by rail from places such as Heron Lake in southwestern Minnesota to markets in Chicago and further east.

By the early 1900s, the wildlife conservation movement began to pick up steam, partly in response to the unchecked take of migratory birds. Many states began enacting legislation to set hunting seasons in response to declining game populations including migratory birds. President Theodore Roosevelt established the Pelican Island Federal Bird Refuge as a nesting sanctuary for waterbirds. Congress passed the first federal wildlife protection law, the Lacey Act, which made it illegal to transport or sell a bird in one state when it was illegally harvested in another state in 1900. The Lacey Act was an important step in ending the era of market hunting in the United States. Even with this conservation momentum, the passenger pigeon, historically one of the most abundant birds in North America, went extinct in 1914 when “Martha” died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

A combination of these events reinforced the need for increased cooperation in conserving our shared bird resources, especially those that cross state and international borders. In that spirit, the United States and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the “Treaty on the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada and the United States” on August 16, 1916, which we now refer to as the Migratory Bird Treaty. The Treaty was ultimately extended to include Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1972, and Russia in 1976.

Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 to formally implement the provisions of the Treaty. Specifically, the Act prohibited the hunting, killing, capturing, possession, sale, transportation, and exportation of birds, feathers, eggs and nests. It also provided for the establishment of protected refuges to give birds safe habitats and it encouraged the sharing of data between nations to monitor bird populations. In fact, the establishment of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924 is directly rooted in the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The landmark Migratory Bird Treaty and Act has paved the way for migratory bird conservation over the past 100 years. Some highlights include the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act in 1934; the establishment of the cooperative Flyway-based system for migratory bird management in North America during the 1940s and 1950s; and the enactment of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act in 1989. These efforts, along with others, have helped manage and conserve millions of acres of wildlife habitat benefiting migratory birds and the American public. Within in the Midwest Region, once imperiled species, such as the Canada goose and sandhill crane, have recovered to robust populations thanks in part to the protections resulting from the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty.

The Migratory Bird Centennial offers an unprecedented opportunity to raise the visibility of migratory bird conservation in North America and provides a great springboard to launch us into the next 100 years! Throughout 2016, we plan to engage our partners in events that increase awareness and support for migratory bird conservation. Some Midwest Region highlights include integrating a Centennial theme in annual events such as International Migratory Bird Day, National Wildlife Refuge Week and local birding festivals; holding a partnership event in Chicago in August; and sponsoring a youth art contest where kids can submit artwork with a bird conservation theme. In the near future, displays about the Migratory Bird Treaty and bird conservation will be available for field stations to use at public events. Please stay tuned throughout the coming year for more stories and events on how you can participate in Centennial activities and promote migratory bird conservation throughout the Midwest Region and beyond.

We also invite you to visit for more information about the Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial including an informative timeline that outlines bird conservation over the past 200 years.

By Tom Cooper
Regional Office - Migratory Bird Program


Katie Koch
Regional Office - Migratory Bird Program

A barred owl.  Photo by Jon Nelson/Creative Commons.

A barred owl.  Photo by Jon Nelson/Creative Commons.


Last updated: June 8, 2020