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What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?

No matter how common or how rare, all native North American birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Pictured is a Dark-eyed Junco, one of the hundreds of bird species protected by the treaty. Photo by Kris Petersen via Birdshare.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed by the United States and Canada in 1918 for the purpose of ending the commercial trade in feathers. Around the turn of the 20th century, the long breeding plumes on many bird species were highly prized fashion accessories, and thousands of birds were indiscriminately killed for this purpose. This led to the formation of many conservation organizations, including the Massachusetts and National Audubon Societies, which in turn helped lobby for the passage of the act.

The act was an early landmark in conservation, at a time when birds were under intense hunting pressure and many of the public still regarded nature as inexhaustible. For example, in 1857 an Ohio Senate committee denied a measure to protect the Passenger Pigeon, writing:

The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced. (source:

As many people know, the last representative of the species—named Martha—died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The species’ sudden extinction provided impetus to the growing conservation movement.

The treaty prohibited the hunting, killing, capturing, possession (this is why we don’t keep or raise baby birds or try to nurse injured birds back to health ourselves!), sale, transportation and exportation of migratory birds, and their feathers, eggs and nests. It also provided for the establishment of refuges to protect bird habitat, and it encouraged the monitoring of bird populations for conservation purposes. Amendments to the initial treaty extended its range to include other nations: Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1972 and the USSR (now Russia) in 1976 are all included in the act today.

Not all North American bird species are protected under the act. Birds that are considered non-native species such as the House Sparrow and the European Starling are not protected, and many groups of hunted or game birds, including ducks, geese, doves, and many shorebirds are subject to limited protection and can be hunted in season.

Although many of the birds that are protected by the treaty are not long-range migrants, it can be argued that even “year-round” birds move around in search of local food sources, and are thus afforded protection under the act.

Over 1,000 bird species are currently protected.

For more information, read the Fish and Wildlife Service’s page on the act.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library