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Saving the Migrants: Since 1970 North American Bird Populations Have Declined By 29%

Osprey pair at Autumn Ridge Farms last summer on the border of Ayer/Groton. Photo by Patricia Mahon.


by Mary J Metzger
Like more than 500 bird species that use the Atlantic Flyway, the ospreys have flown away to their winter home in the tropics. With luck, they will return to the same nesting sites next spring and try to bring forth another generation. But it has taken more than luck for this migration to continue. Their journey has depended on the conservation work of many individuals over the past century.
     In 1975 there were only nine pairs of osprey left in Massachusetts. Like the bald eagle, these fish hawks could not reproduce after the use of DDT, a synthetic pesticide developed in the 1940s, made their eggshells too fragile to survive and their numbers plummeted.
     In 1962 Rachel Carson had asked this question “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”
     Her book, Silent Spring, led to the environmental movement with the passage of key legislation like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and by 1972 the nationwide ban on DDT. Though scorned by the chemical industry and reviled even today in some quarters, Rachel Carson was right.
     “Everything is connected to everything else,” says Jill Lepore in the New Yorker magazine article The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson. She continued, “The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish.”
     Good for the osprey, whose numbers started to rebound, as a few coastal residents helped in another way. Osprey won’t use a forest for nesting. They want the safety of a separate old tree. On Cape Cod, these pitch pine “wolf trees” had been lost to development.
     Beginning in 1970, Gus Ben David put up a nesting platform for the last pair of osprey on Martha’s Vineyard. They used it and Ben David eventually formed an agreement with the local power companies to help relocate and install osprey nests. As their numbers increased, the birds moved inland. By 2010 there were more than 400 pairs in Massachusetts. Nationwide their populations are still increasing and are a conservation success story. Other birds are still in peril.
     During the fall migration, many birds that nest all over the continent gather in large staging areas along our coasts. They find the abundant food they need in the estuaries to fuel up for their marathon journeys to South America.
     In the 19th century these places were easy targets for market gunners who supplied a very high demand for the feathers that adorned fashionable women’s hats at the time. Millions of birds were killed each year. Sometimes whole nesting colonies were wiped out leaving the chicks to starve.
     Boston Brahmin Harriet Lawrence Hemenway was upset by this. She convinced her cousin Minna Hall to join her in efforts to stop the feather trade. In 1896, over tea, they organized a group of 900 upper-class women to stop wearing feathered hats. This group eventually evolved into Mass Audubon.
     Their political influence led to the passage in 1897 of a Massachusetts law that outlawed trade in wild bird feathers, but was hard to enforce. The 1913 Weeks-McLean Law, or Migratory Bird Act, in Congress outlawed market hunting and the international transport of birds. It became an international treaty with Canada and Great Britain in 1918, prohibiting the deliberate or accidental killing of protected migratory birds.
     This law survived legal challenges when Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared in 1920 that the protection of birds was in the national interest. He could see, after the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet, there could come a day when there wouldn’t be any birds if hunting wasn’t regulated.
     “Wild birds are not in the possession of anyone,” he wrote. “The whole foundation of the states’ rights is the presence within their jurisdiction of birds that yesterday had not arrived, tomorrow may be in another state and in a week a thousand miles away.”
     For a century, then, more than 1,000 species of migratory birds were protected. Until 2017. That year the current administration’s Interior Department attempted to strip away the law’s provisions which protected birds from incidental, but avoidable, kills from industrial activities, like flying into toxic uncovered oil pits, or landing on uninsulated electric wires.
Several states and organizations fought this in court, and won a ruling in August 2020 by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni. She noted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to kill birds “by any means whatever or in any manner.”
     But another important bird sanctuary is under attack. Birds  from six continents fly every spring to do their nesting in the Arctic. These boggy plains have the mass of insects needed to feed their fledglings. In 1960 the 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife refuge was established to protect the world’s shorebird nursery.
     In August the current administration finalized a plan to open the area to oil and gas leases. It’s unknown what interest there is in these leases during a worldwide oil glut with difficult and costly conditions for drilling in the area. And whether these leases must be honored if the decision is reversed in court.
     Since 1970 North American bird populations have declined by 29 percent, with three billion fewer birds. Two-thirds of the ones remaining are threatened by climate change. Saving this part of our natural heritage is going to require some more help from conservation-minded people in this century.
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