We’re more than halfway into 2018, the Year of the Bird. When I wrote about this banner year back in December 2017, I wondered if by marking the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), we would make any true progress on protecting our nation’s—and the world’s—birds.
Unfortunately, in these first six-and-a-half months of a bird-awareness year, I have yet to see much that’s hopeful. That’s mostly for two reasons: a recent scientific report shows that climate change is having a devastating impact on our songbirds, and the MBTA is more tattered and in danger than ever.
In a landmark study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of North American scientists found that climate change could be preventing some songbirds from successfully raising young. This groundbreaking project is the first to examine the mismatch between birds’ springtime arrival and plant growth in North America.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed 12 years of data. They discovered that changing climatic conditions are triggering spring plant growth earlier than normal in eastern North America and later than usual in the western part of our nation, altering the timing of insect emergence. As a result, some bird species that breed in eastern forests arrive too late to benefit from newly hatched insects, while some western bird species reach breeding sites too early.
Nine of the 48 songbird species that the biologists studied increasingly can’t reach mating grounds in time to find enough insects to produce healthy young. The rate at which climate change is progressing may outpace some species’ efforts to stay in sync, which is especially concerning given that climate change is predicted to accelerate.
The authors conclude “climate change is projected to drive hundreds of bird species to extinction and greatly reduce the ranges of others, and is already impacting species richness and composition.”
Opportune timing for tampering with an act
Just at the time when climate change is seriously threatening many birds with extinction, one of the most potent laws we have to protect them is on a track for getting weaker.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the harming of more than 1,000 migratory bird species, making it “unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill [or] sell…any migratory bird [or] any part, nest or egg of any such bird,” unless sanctioned by a valid U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) permit. Falconry, Native American ceremonies and scientific collection are the few exceptions.
For the past four decades, the USFWS has interpreted the 100-year-old act as covering both deliberate and accidental kills, whether by gas flares, power lines or wind turbines. These “incidental takes” are subject to penalty if companies don’t work with the USFWS to fix hazardous operations and sites.
When humans industrialize a landscape, the MBTA creates a powerful incentive for people to protect birds. But on December 22, 2017, just three days before Christmas, the Department of the Interior issued a 41-page opinion stating that the USFWS should no longer enforce the law against companies that kill birds unintentionally. Some pointed out that the timing of this announcement was made to escape much notice.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, if the opinions in this 41-page document are acted on, five results are guaranteed:
1) There will be no accountability for oil spills or restoration of habitat. After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which killed more than one million birds, federal officials used the MBTA to ensure that BP made recovery payments of $100 million. These funds have been used to restore habitat for waterfowl and other birds in the Gulf. The new interpretation of the law excludes incidental killing of birds, so companies would not be held responsible for future devastating spills.
2) Bird deaths due to power line collisions will increase. Collisions with power transmission and distribution lines may account for up to 175 million bird deaths annually. The MBTA encouraged companies to retrofit power lines to make them safe for bird perching.
3) Nesting bird populations will be disturbed. Companies could now be able to bypass efforts to ensure that construction projects, such as pipelines or transmission lines, are timed so as not to distress nesting birds.
4) Hundreds of thousands of birds will die in toxic, oil waste pits. The act has been used to encourage companies to cover toxic oil pits, which are used to store excess fluids that are released from drilling. Uncovered oil waste pits account for up to 500,000 to one million bird deaths per year.
5) Collisions with wind turbines will rise due to reduced incentives for safe placement. Past interpretations of the MBTA made new wind farms much safer for birds by incentivizing changes in wind farm siting and operation practices. The USFWS estimates that wind turbines kill a half a million birds a year.
Year of the Bird’s second act
Worldwide, there may be as many as 11,000 to 18,000 different species of birds. But at least 40 percent of them have declining populations. In the U.S., the Lower 48 alone hosts 954 bird species—11 of which are found nowhere else in the world—with 101 of them threatened with extinction.
You would think that a “Year of the Bird” would mean celebrating and showing appreciation for the birds in our midst. After all, birds have a huge cultural, natural and economic impact on our lives. More than 45 million people in the United States watch birds, joining other wildlife-watchers to contribute nearly $80 billion to the U.S. economy. But with increasing climate change and decreasing protections for birds against our human actions, instead it looks like this year will be a battle for their very survival.
All of us might want to ask ourselves if we really want a country without California condors, mountain plovers, greater sage grouse, saltmarsh sparrows or whooping cranes. Let’s do it before the rest of the Year of the Bird is gone.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,