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Understanding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

Find out how the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act continues to shape the future of waterfowl hunting.

Understanding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

Taking a closer look at the longstanding piece of legislation that establishes our waterfowl hunting regulations. (Photo By: Dan Hruska, HP Outdoors)

Say MBTA to a Bostonian and he’ll direct you to a train. The T is short handle for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, abbreviated as the MBTA. Old timers call it the ‘trolly’ (pronounced “trawl-eee”) while really old timers take the ‘rattler.’ Ya kin take the T ta Fenway ta catch the Sawks and have a coupla beeahs and an Eskimo Pie, guy.

Mention the MBTA to a waterfowler and he’ll know you’re talking about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the 1918 conservation platform designed to ensure sustainable populations of migratory birds. The MBTA has roots in overharvesting and protects beleaguered waterfowl species. It prohibits the killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transporting of migratory species that are protected. So how exactly does this century-old piece of legislation serve as the single most important piece of legislation for waterfowl hunters? Let’s find out.

waterfowl hunters in cornfield shooting from layout blinds
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act continues to provide the framework for how hunters harvest waterfowl. (Photo By: Dan Hruska, HP Outdoors)

The Tide, Like the Century, Turned 

With the turn of the century came a change in attitude. Forward thinkers were early conservationists who recognized the excess of gluttonous behavior that began in the mid-1800’s. Westward expansion and a series of land rushes combined with industrialization took an initial toll on America’s habitat. Speculators exploited all natural resources while developers gobbled up large tracts of grazing land and forests. Practices used by mining companies were considered improper, and there was a wasteful attitude towards natural resources that seemed to be in an unending supply. Add to it the emerging travel that came from the 1903 debut not only of the Ford Motor Company and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, but also with the first powered flight launched by the Wright Brothers. Something had to change.

Don’t Tell Me About the Labor Pains, Just Show Me the Baby 

One significant change occurred through a tragedy, which was the attempted assassination of President McKinley in 1901. McKinley was shot with two bullets, but only one was removed. The second caused gangrene from which the President ultimately would succumb. His Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, assumed office, and had an immediate impact on the environment along with fish and wild game. Roosevelt was present for the formation of the Lacey Act of 1900, which outlawed the transportation  of poached game across state lines, and to that he created:

  • 150 National Forests
  • 51 Federal Bird Preserve
  • 4 National Game Preserves
  • 5 National Parks
  • 18 National Monuments on over 230 million acres of public land
  • The Inland Waterways Commission to study the relationship of rivers, soil, forests and waterpower development
  • The National Conservation Commission which created long-term plans for the preservation of natural resources. 

The Game Changer for Fowlers

One fashion trend caused a sportsman like Roosevelt a great degree of heartburn. The use of bird feathers, wings, beaks, heads, and even whole birds in women’s hats, muffs, and earrings created a bullish market for the harvesting of every kind of fowl. The more exotic the feather the better, and poachers slaughtered great numbers of bald eagles, egrets, swans, hummingbirds, Blue and night herons, and other species every single year. Statistics from 1902 reported that one and a half tons of egret feathers alone were sold to milliners for use in women’s hats, which begs a question; how many birds make up 3,000 pounds of feathers? Modern statistics say 200,000. That was only one species, and in 1902 in Florida alone, a total of 5 million birds were harvested. 

historic drawing of market hunting for waterfowl
 The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was established to prevent the unregulated overharvesting of protected species. (Photo By: Oleg Golovnev/

To affect a change, Roosevelt welcomed 1903 by establishing Florida’s Pelican Island Federal Bird Reservation. Over time, the struggling populations rebounded. Roosevelt built on his success by establishing a total of 51 other reservations during his presidency. These properties did more than protect exotic bird species; they served as the foundation for the National Wildlife Refuge System which currently oversees 560 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts that cover over 150 million acres as well as over 418 million acres of marine national monuments. I hunt ducks on a few different refuges and they never disappoint.

The Formation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, goes the saying, and it wasn’t a lot of fun for migratory birds. If the demand for feathers didn’t just result in excessive bird harvests, it spurred on enormous poaching practices. State-level laws did not work, and something needed to be done. The MBTA was the result.

Launched in 1918, the MBTA is the most important bird protection law in North America. MBTA protects both our native and migratory bird populations by prohibiting the take of protected bird species without authorization by the Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The working definition of ‘take’ includes ‘killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transporting’ of those protected species.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 drew heavily from an earlier treaty between the United States and Great Britain through Canada. The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada had a goal of creating a sustainable population of birds that crossed international boundaries. A similar agreement was signed with Mexico in 1936, with Japan in 1972, and with Russia in 1976.

three dead wood duck drakes on ground
This monumental piece of legislation set the parameters for how bag limits are administered amongst the flyways in North America. (Photo By: Dan Hruska)

Saving the Living Skies

One group that supported the MBTA was The Audubon Society that states, “The MBTA is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, such as the snowy egret, wood duck, and Sandhill crane, and millions, if not billions of other birds.” Between the 1800s and the 1900s, the loss of habitat combined with over harvesting placed wood duck populations in jeopardy. When the MBTA closed hunting for woodies, nesting boxes were launched in the 1930s and populations began to rebound. The Secretary of the Interior and the US Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the wood duck hunting season in 1941.

Sandhill cranes, those ‘ribeyes of the sky’ were nearly hunted to extinction around the early 1900s. MBTA shut down hunting seasons, and their numbers have rebounded. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, sandhill crane populations have increased at an annual rate of five percent since the mid-1960s. Wetland restoration and waste grain on agricultural lands have helped them rebound, and the improvement resulted in the reopening of hunting seasons. Waterfowl hunters now can pursue them in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

Over the decades, the number of birds protected by the MBTA has grown significantly. Currently, some 1,026 species are protected, and they range from the common American crow to rare birds like the spectacled eider. But an eider is a sea duck, and we shoot sea ducks, so that seems to mean that the MBTA is terrible for waterfowlers, doesn’t it? Nope.


The Bird is the Word

When it comes to surfing, The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird said “everybody knows that the bird is the word.” When it comes to the MBTA and hunting, I checked in with John Devney, Delta Waterfowl’s Chief Policy Officer. Devney confirmed that unless it was goose season, the duck was, in fact, the word. 

“The MBTA is a foundational law and document that provides conservationists with the rules of the road,” he said. “While we might not reference it on a daily basis, the MBTA undergirds everything we do. It provides us with a road map for handling waterfowl population declines and causes us to be forward thinking. It also triggers the annual regulatory harvest management process and provides the basis for how waterfowl hunting seasons and regulations are established.”

duck hunter tagging mallard drake
Tagging your birds makes it much easier to keep your personal possession limit separate from other members of your hunting party. (Photo By: Dan Hruska)

Other Players in the Game

Waterfowl hunting has been a regulated activity for so long that the MBTA is part of Delta Waterfowl’s conservation fabric. But other groups interact with the MBTA on a regular basis as well. These days, energy companies in the oil, natural gas, solar, and wind power sectors are a current focal point according to Devney.

“Birds that are injured or killed due to an oil spill are one such example just as are birds killed by wind farms,” he said. “These companies are concurrently emerging and expanding, so there is certainly a keen eye with how these industries impact various bird species.” 

In his piece “Birds and Oil Spills,” Dr. Roger Lederer, a leading avian scientist, said, “Each year over 500,000 birds die worldwide due to oil spills.” A decade ago in 2013, wind farms made national news when the Department of Justice (DOJ) sentenced Duke Energy to pay $1M in fines for the death of 163 birds. According to the DOJ, Duke Energy, “failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades despite prior warnings about this issue.” The Montana-based conservation group, The Property and Environment Research Center estimates “as many as 328,000 birds die each year as a result of contact with the massive blades. They are also deadly to bats, an important pollinator.” Women’s hats were the culprit in the 1900s just as energy is one of them today.

The MTBA was established over a century ago and continues to protect migratory bird species, including the ducks, geese, cranes, swans, and other waterfowl we enjoy pursuing. The MTBA should be held in high regard by fowlers as fundamental piece of legislation that seeks to both conserve a natural resource and allow for the consumptive recreational benefit to waterfowl hunters.

waterfowl hunters holding up dead mallards and canada geese
This important set of regulations allows waterfowl hunters to enjoy harvesting ducks, geese, and other waterfowl species responsibility, while ensuring abundant populations remain for future generations. (Photo By: Dan Hruska)

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