May 142016


The second Saturday in May is set aside in the Americas, and a few other parts of the world, as International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). The day is set aside to highlight the importance of bird conservation, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty co-signed by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The Treaty is supposed to protect migratory species by limiting or banning the killing of certain species as well as seeking to curtail the destruction of their natural habitats.


The 19th century has a lot to answer for. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion, and the attendant degradation of the environment, a process that continues to this day. There is an endless conflict between the desire of industrialists to make money which may entail the destruction of forests, wetlands, and prairies, and the general pollution of the environment, versus the attempts by conservationists to preserve the habitats of wild bird species. Sadly, the industrialists tend to win out, and the public often goes along with them. Politicians can often easily sway public opinion by birds-versus-jobs rhetoric, or similar simplistic catch phrases. This is an extremely short-sighted approach. Migratory birds are not simply attractive visitors; they are vital to the ecology of the planet, which, in turn, is vital to our own survival in the long run.


The 19th century also saw the massive killing of migratory birds for food. My post on the passenger pigeon underscores this point: . In fact it was the death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 that spurred the environmental movement and, eventually, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty. Certain wildfowl seemed to be indestructibly numerous in the 19th century, so that no one thought twice about killing thousands daily for food when they were so numerous that migratory flocks could blacken the sky from horizon to horizon for hours. What’s the harm in killing some? Well, at the beginning of the 20th century they found out. Migratory birds are not an inexhaustible resource. Kill enough of them over time and they will die out.


It’s also true that standards were very different in the 19th century from now. John James Audubon is hailed as a great, naturalist, ornithologist, and conservationist because of his magnificent paintings of the birds of North America. What is not so often mentioned is that the birds he painted were dead – either shot by himself or by hunters he paid to “collect” them. Even today there is an ongoing debate about the need to kill and dissect members of endangered species as part of the effort to understand them and, therefore, protect them.

Rather than try to encompass all migratory birds I’ll focus on two broad genera that have been important to me throughout my life: hummingbirds and ducks. I never saw or was aware of hummingbirds until I moved to North America in 1975. I was dimly aware of the environment in Australia and England, but became much more intrigued when I moved to North Carolina, especially when I spent a year living in the Tidewater region and documenting the culture as a doctoral student. That’s where I first saw a hummingbird – feeding on flowers around the house where I was living (on the southern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp). In hindsight the bird was not particularly special, a male rubythroat, I’ve seen hundreds since in my own garden in New York. At the time, though, the sighting was momentous for me. At first I did not even realize that it was a bird; I thought it was a big insect. Then I took a closer look and