Photo by Vance Osterhout on Unsplash

This one is for the birds

This message is for the birds, literally. 

We have just learned after a major study, published last fall in the journal Science, showing that the U.S. and Canada lost roughly 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, or 29% of the populations that were in the skies in 1970. 

The causes are often about habitat destruction, urbanization and pesticides, mostly the doing of humans, whether directly (construction, spraying bug killers, etc.) or indirectly (climate change). 

Now, comes Donald Trump. He and his minions have a proposal that significantly undermines the welfare of birds — and this proposal carries a comment deadline of March 19.

Background

In 1916, the U.S. and Canada signed a treaty designed to protect migratory birds. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) codifies that agreement, which has been expanded to include Japan, Mexico and Russia as signers. The U.S. law, as later amended, now covers all bird species native to the U.S. or its territories. 

It is illegal to buy or sell, or intentionally kill, native birds in the U.S. without a federal permit. Examples are the permits available to hunters of ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

Furthermore, the MBTA, as interpreted for decades, has imposed penalties on companies found to be responsible for accidental bird deaths that could reasonably have been prevented. 

For example, birds can die if they land on an uncovered oil waste pit that looks like a pond or if they fly into an unseen power line. These events are called “incidental takes,” deaths that occur due to activities that are otherwise lawful. Oil pits can be covered and power lines retrofitted.

To limit these deaths and avoid fines, some companies, including oil producers and electric utilities, have worked with conservation groups and wildlife agencies to develop best practices to protect birds. 

In 2017, the Interior Department reinterpreted the law to cease holding industries accountable for incidental bird deaths, thus ending penalties for preventable deaths and eliminating the incentive to protect birds.

If the Trumpian view had applied a decade ago, BP would not have been liable in 2010 for the more than 1 million bird deaths resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As it was, more than $64 million of BP settlement funds were used to help affected bird species, including protecting or restoring more than 350,000 acres benefitting birds and people. 

However, now, industry enjoys a free pass to kill birds as long as the killing is not intentional. The only good thing about the policy is that a new president could reverse it immediately.

But wait — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) propose to convert the 2017 legal opinion into a regulation that would be harder to reverse.

There are two ways to push back — file a comment at FWS and urge Congressional action. 

Justification for pushing back is not just because birds may be graceful when flying overhead or amusing to watch at the beach. 

Birds, exotic or not, are vital to ecosystems — they control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their habitats are changed but pests are happier. FYI, birds pollinate around 5% of the plants humans use for food or medicine.

Comments

I hope you will join me in filing comments here.

Legislation

After beating the above deadline, you may want to follow that with notes or calls to your members of Congress, supporting HR5552, the Migratory Bird Protection Act, which would codify the decades-long policy of previous presidents, holding industry responsible for preventable deaths. The bill would go further by establishing a system to spell out bird-protective practices and technologies that companies can adopt to avoid liability for accidental bird deaths. 

I have sample postcard-sized letters below, good for all members of Congress. They are very basic. Use as you see fit or write your own.

And share all the above with bird lovers or anyone conscious enough to worry about ecosystems!

Note: I relied heavily on the Audubon Society for the above narrative.

For those who want to know more about the importance of birds in our ecosystems, this piece is useful and, in fact, fascinating.

Sample letters:

Dear (Senator or Representative):
I am a constituent and I urge you to support and see to the passage of HR5552, the Migratory Bird Protection Act. The bill, with bipartisan sponsorship in the House, asserts the intent of the 102-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from industrial hazards and introduces a permit system that makes it clearer what is expected of businesses vis-à-vis bird safety.

Current Trump era policy to overlook businesses’ responsibility for preventable bird deaths takes us in the wrong direction when birds, vital to our ecosystems, are seeing severe drops in their numbers. 

Thank you.

Dear (Senator or Representative): 
I am a constituent and a bird lover concerned that North America has lost some 3 BILLION birds in the last 50 years, much of that due to human activity. We must stem the losses, not exacerbate them.

Therefore, I urge you to support and see to the passage of HR5552, the Migratory Bird Protection Act. The bill, with bipartisan sponsorship in the House, would codify decades-long policy under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act requiring industry to proactively protect birds from industrial hazards, and it would overturn Trump policy to ignore such hazards.

Thank you.


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