by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA’s Canadian Representative
I’m a Canadian, so I’m not entirely familiar with how things work legislatively in the bustling and powerful nation to the south of me. But, what I do know is that there is a Republican congressman from South Carolina who wants to place a rider on an appropriations bill that “prohibits the federal government from prosecuting any person or corporation for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.”
The Act, first passed in 1918, has the word “treaty” in it because it is an agreement between two separate, sovereign nations—Canada and the U.S.—and there is a reason for such a mutual understanding.
Look at the word “migratory.” Just four years before the law came into effect, the once most abundant bird species in North America had become extinct, and others were gone or on the verge. It was recognized even then, and all the more so now, that apart from any moral or aesthetic consideration, these birds performed valuable utilitarian services (such as the non-toxic control of insects) and that the health of the environment depended on the diversity of wildlife.
Even as the great Industrial Revolution rolled out of Europe and across America, it was as true then as it is now that the very foundation of our lives, and our ability to do commerce, depends on the viability—the health—of the environment from which we have sprung, and upon which we ultimately and totally depend. No gram of food, drop of water, or breath of air exists but for the workings of the nonhuman, “natural” world. And, we are corrupting all of that at an alarming rate.
How can people who don’t realize that get elected to high office?
A large percentage of protected species are essential to Canadian interests, but how can we protect them when they are migrating to, or through, the U.S.? People continue to kill even the most benign and beautiful of songbirds; or simply mow down habitat; or shoot hawks, herons, Hudsonian godwits, or hummingbirds.
What is particularly incomprehensible is that this unscientific, unneighborly, unilateral decision should come at a time when we are seeing so much loss not only in birds, but in other wildlife species, in America and worldwide. Wildlife species that were abundant in my childhood are now being listed as threatened or endangered. Even still, common species are not as common. In the 1970s, a drive from my home to Lake Simcoe, about 45 miles to the north, was filled with sightings of Savannah sparrows, bobolinks, thrashers, vesper sparrows, meadowlarks, kestrels, barn swallows, and so on. Now, I can make that drive in the absence of seeing any of them; they are not necessarily endangered yet, but they are clearly in serious decline.
Meanwhile, what was once Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, the yellow-breasted bunting, has seen a 90% decline in population since 1980. It is a migratory songbird, roughly the size of our native song sparrow—but it lacks protection. Robins and rails, sandpipers, and shrikes need protection wherever they occur, and they know nothing of politically chosen borders.
The yellow-breasted bunting has been over-hunted in regions, especially China, where there is nothing like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or legislation to enforce it.
We can’t keep destroying what is so essential to us, even those who see no inherent value in the song of a hermit thrush, the dramatic stoop of a falcon, the cheerfully bright colors of a goldfinch or tanager, or the drama of a flock of scoters flying in a string just over the breaking waves in the low light of a coastal dawn.
I understand that the president and the senate have the ability to veto the bill, but it seems a shame to promote such divisiveness in the first place. I can only hope, for the sake of all, that compassion prevails.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,