Bird Migration Treaties – US Perspective

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Overview – Domestic Laws Addressing Bird Populations
There are both domestic and international laws, treaties, and conventions determining the United States’ approach to bird populations and bird habitat. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a helpful overview of these laws, treaties, and conventions. Here is a summary of the main domestic laws addressing bird populations:

The Lacey Act (1900)
The first piece of legislation in the US addressing birds is the Lacey Act (1900), established to protect bird populations that had been compromised by hunting for restaurants and for the feathers trade.

  • Aims in particular at passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlew and other shorebirds, snowy egret and ‘other colonial-nesting wading birds’.
  • The Lacey Act prohibits taking game across state lines if it is illegal in the receiving state

Weeks-MacLean Law (1913)
This act follows Lacey Act and is designed to address failures in Lacey Act regarding enforcement.

  • “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 Law is weak on constitutional grounds, and so soon replaced by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918)
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act decrees that all migratory bids and their parts (including eggs, nests, and feathers) are fully protected.

  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act is the domestic law that implements the United States’ commitment to four international conventions (with Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Russia) for the protection of a shared migratory bird resource. Each of the conventions (summarized below) protects selected species of birds that are common to both countries (i.e., they occur in both countries at some point during their annual life cycle).
  • View a list of birds protected under the Act.

Endangered Species Act (1973)
A ‘landmark’ piece of legislation for migratory bids conservation. This is the US domestic law that implements the United States’ commitment to two international treaties that contain important provisions for the protection of migratory birds: CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the Pan American Convention (the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere). These are summarized below.

Bald Eagle Protection Act (1940)
This law “provides for the protection of the bald eagle (the national emblem) and the golden eagle by prohibiting, except under certain specified conditions, the taking, possession and commerce of such birds. It is amended in 1972 to increase penalties for violating the Act and to strengthen enforcement measures. Rewards are provided for information leading to arrest and conviction for violation of the Act. Amended in 1978 to authorize “the taking of golden eagle nests that interfere with resource development or recovery operations” and again in 1994 to set out “the policy concerning collection and distribution of eagle feathers for Native American religious purposes”

Waterfowl Depredations Prevention Act (1956)
Essentially allows the luring of waterfowl with grain away from where they may cause damage to crops but not so as to expose them to shooting.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (1980)
“Authorizes financial and technical assistance to the States for the development, revision, and implementation of conservation plans and programs for nongame fish and wildlife”. Amended in 1988 to require the Fish and Wildlife Service to “monitor and assess migratory nongame birds, determine the effects of environmental changes and human activities, identify those likely to be candidates for endangered species listing, identify appropriate actions, and report to Congress one year from enactment”. In 1989, amended to include the identification of lands and waters “whose protection, management, or acquisition will foster the conservation of migratory nongame birds”.

Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992)
Establishes federal system for addressing international import and export of birds, including moratoria, provisions for suspending existing trade if deemed necessary, development of lists of birds for which trade is allowed, etc. It also sets up procedures for assisting bird conservation projects in other countries.
Overview – Domestic Laws Addressing Bird Habitat
Duck Stamp Act (1934)
Formally known as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act. Basically the Act that allows the government to make stamps with duck pictures on them and generate money for the acquisition and protection of migratory bird habitats. The Wetlands Loan Act (1961) and the Emergency Wetlands Resources Act (1986) modify and strengthen the Duck Stamp Act.

Wetlands Loan Act (1961)
Wetlands Loan Act (1961) authorized an advance of funds against future revenues from sale of “duck stamps” as a means of accelerating the acquisition of migratory waterfowl habitat. In 1976 the loan ceiling is increased to $200 million

Emergency Wetlands Resources Act (1986)
This act authorized the purchase of wetlands from Land and Water Conservation Fund monies (which had been prohibited). Required the Secretary to establish a National Wetlands Priority Conservation Plan, required the States to include wetlands in their Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plans, and transferred to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund amounts equal to the import duties on arms and ammunition. Also implements reporting and monitoring procedures re: wetlands. Established entrance fees at National Wildlife Refuges and dictated their allocation (between Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and operations/maintenance

Migratory Bird Conservation Act
North American Wetlands Conservation Act (1989)
This act provides matching grants to organizations and individuals who have developed partnerships to carry out wetlands conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Mexico for the benefit of wetlands-associated migratory birds and other wildlife.

Overview – International Conventions and Treaties

Ramsar Convention
(The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitats). Ramsar is “an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 158 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1831 wetland sites, totaling 170 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance”

Antarctic Treaty
Designed to protect the native birds, mammals, and plants of the Antarctic

Migratory Bird and Game Mammal Treaty with Mexico (1936)
Migratory Bird and Game Mammal Treaty with Mexico (1936) adopted a system for the protection of certain migratory birds in the United States and Mexico.

  • Allows, under regulation, the use of certain migratory birds. Provides for enactment of laws and regulations to protect birds by establishment of closed seasons and refuge zones. Prohibits killing of insectivorous birds, except under permit when harmful to agriculture. Provides for enactment of regulations on transportation of game mammals across the United States-Mexican border.
  • The treaty was amended in 1972 to add 32 additional families of birds including eagles, hawks, owls, and Corvidae family, and again in 1995 to establish a legal framework for the subsistence take of birds in Alaska and northern Canada by Alaska Natives and Aboriginal people in Canada. (

Migratory Bird Treaty with Japan (1972)
Designed to provide for the protection of species of birds which are common to both countries, or which migrate between them by enhancement of habitat, exchange of research data, and regulation of hunting.

Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada (Convention Between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds), (1916).
This treaty “adopted a uniform system of protection for certain species of birds which migrate between the United States and Canada, in order to assure the preservation of species either harmless or beneficial to man”.

  • Sets certain dates for closed seasons on migratory birds. Prohibits hunting insectivorous birds, but allows killing of birds under permit when injurious to agriculture.
  • Canada and the United States signed an agreement on January 30, 1979, to amend the treaty to allow subsistence hunting of waterfowl outside of the normal hunting season, but it was never ratified by the Senate and never took effect. The treaty was amended in 1995 to establish a legal framework for the subsistence take of birds in Alaska and northern Canada by Alaska Natives and Aboriginal people in Canada. The Senate provided its advice and consent to the amendments in November, 1997. The treaty was formally implemented in 1999.

Migratory Bird Treaty with the Soviet Union (Convention Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Concerning the Conservation of Migratory Birds and Their Environment) (1976).
Provides for the protection of species of birds that migrate between the United States and the Soviet Union or that occur in either country and “have common flyways, breeding, wintering, feeding or moulting areas” and encourages identification and protection of habitat against “pollution, detrimental alteration, and other environmental degradation”. Outlines measures for cooperation in the protection of migratory in danger of extinction.

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