Until the late 19th century, there was little or perhaps no legal protection in the United States for birds or their habitats. For instance, birds were hunted and killed by the millions so their feathers could be used as hat decorations and fashion accessories.
Throughout history humans have included birds in spiritual and cultural expression. Birds are admired for their beauty and ability to fly. They provide food. Birds are essential to keeping insect pests in check in forests, on farms, and in backyards. Birds are important indicators of ecosystem health. Birds are residents of planet earth just like us.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
— John Muir
Fortunately, birds had and continue to have many advocates who have pursued and attained legal protection for birds and their habitats.
Bird and Bird Habitat Protection and Conservation Legislation
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Congressional and Legislative Affairs website maintains a list of current laws, treaties, interstate compacts, and other agreements.
Listed below are a few bird related legislation items and historical highlights.
1885: Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy is established within the USDA and studies the role of birds in controlling agricultural pests. It is later renamed Bureau of Biological Survey.
1900: Lacey Act is the first federal law to protect game animals and wild birds by prohibiting interstate shipment of illegally taken wildlife.
1903: Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge becomes the first federal bird reservation.
1913: Weeks-McLean Law is the first law to regulate hunting of migratory birds and prohibits importing wild bird feathers.
1918: Migratory Bird Treaty Act provides protection for migratory birds, their eggs, nests, and feathers. It replaces the Weeks-McLean Law and implements treaties with Canada, Japan, Mexico, and the Soviet Union.
1929: Migratory Bird Conservation Act creates the U.S. Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to oversee acquisition of refuge lands and states that refuges are to be managed as sanctuaries for migratory birds.
1934: Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (also known as the Duck Stamp Act) requires waterfowl hunters to purchase a stamp and revenue generated is used to protect waterfowl habitat.
1940: Fish and Wildlife Service is created under the Department of the Interior by combining the Bureaus of Biological Survey and Fisheries. It is later renamed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
1966: National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act formally establishes the National Wildlife Refuge System.
1971: Ramsar Wetlands Convention is adopted to encourage preservation of wetlands of international importance.
1975: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty is entered into force to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because of international trade.
1989: North American Wetlands Conservation Act is enacted to encourage public-private partnerships to conserve migratory bird habitat, and establishes a council and grant fund.
1992: Wild Bird Conservation Act is enacted to ensure exotic bird species are not harmed by international trade and encourages wild bird conservation programs in countries of origin.
2000: Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act is enacted to promote bird habitat conservation in North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Note about Photos: The bird photos above were taken by members of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Click on a photo to view the original photo on flickr.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Bird Conservation Timeline
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Congressional and Legislative Affairs
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – History of the National Wildlife Refuge System
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – International Affairs
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Migratory Bird Program – Laws, Regulations and Policies
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Who We Are