The Bird Conservation Scene

Some Background

The rise of the bird-preservation movement at the end of the 19th century was in response to the slaughter of birds to adorn women's hats and clothing.
Photo: FWS

Although there were efforts to save wild birds and wild places through parts of the 19th century, the history of serious bird conservation in this country began a little over a hundred years ago. What's more we can probably measure the ebb and flow of bird conservation since that time by marking four periods of lengthy and overlapping cycles, high-water marks, in bird conservation.

The first period starts with the rise of the Bird Preservation Movement at the tail end of the 19th Century. It began with the call to stop a needless slaughter, to end the feather trade, dependant as it was on women's fashions. The fashion trend started in the late 1870s, with egrets and herons particularly victimized. The grand effort to save the birds started with our foremothers getting organized in the late 1880s and early 1890s, creating the multiple Audubon Societies, and passing the Lacey Act of 1900, outlawing the interstate trade in feathers. (It is no accident that the rise of field glasses and the Christmas Bird Count started at about this same time.) That energy soon combined with the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt and his establishment of the first of many wildlife refuges beginning with Pelican Island in 1903. TR's administration (1901-1909) saw the creation of 51 bird reservations (and four big-game preserves.) This particular cycle of creative bird conservation can probably mark its terminus with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The Great Egret (center-left) and the Snowy Egret (farther back) were devastated at the end of the 19th century for their decorative plumes. Today they abound on many refuges.
Photo: FWS/Bill Gill

The second period was characterized dramatically with the Prairie Pothole and Dustbowl crisis of the 1930s, a bio-crisis which actually began with an American farm policy during the Great War (WWI) and a call to farm to the maximum. This created a cornucopia of farm production, but it also leading invariably to a degraded and exhausted landscape. The ensuing wetland-and-waterfowl emergency, obvious in the 1920s but hitting rock-bottom in the 1930s was a call to reverse the abuse of the land. Hunter-conservationists were front-and-center, as was the new science of wildlife management. Until this time, refuges expansion had been almost haphazard, certainly not strategic. To address this dire situation, the refuges became a real "system." (For related details, see the section below on the creation of the "Duck Stamp.") This was, perhaps the most profoundly creative, on-the-ground period of bird conservation in our history, beginning in the mid-1930s and leading into the mid-1950s.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a dedicated bird watcher as well as a hunter. He is shown here at the Brenton NWR in Louisiana.
Photo: FWS, NCTC

For our third period, we witnessed the rise of post-World-War-II concern for pesticides. The excessive use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides - especially DDT - was represented by Silent Spring, written by bird enthusiast and prescient eco-witness Rachel Carson (1962). This entire trend can be viewed as originally bird-driven, or at least bird-initiated. Man-made poison and the chronic failure of a federal regulatory process finally began to be addressed. Banning DDT (1972) and the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA, in 1973) characterized the response to this situation. Brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, and, especially, Bald Eagle, became the appropriate and obvious avian symbols for that crisis. Indeed, "environmentalism" as a movement was launched.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s consumed the land and forced farmers from their homes. The draining of wetlands accelerated the process.
Photo: U.S. National Archives

The fourth period of bird conservation starts with the realization that multiple suites of species - be they songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, or other waterbirds - are in trouble because the "big picture" is being ignored. The "big picture" - depending on the species involved - can either be related to the lack of special, regional, perspective or the absence of an inter-American, multinational, aspect of bird conservation. This means planning to deliver the full spectrum of bird conservation through regionally based, biologically driven landscape-oriented partnerships. This "integrated approach" began with waterfowl in the mid-1980s, enriching the older lessons learned through flyways, refuge growth, and monitoring, and expanding the vision and delivery.


More Bird Conservation Information

Bird conservation is both dynamic and fascinating. There are many exciting ways you can get engaged - at your favorite refuge and elsewhere. And it doesn't take an "expert" to do so; in fact, skill-building and contributions to bird conservation are best achieved in tandem. To review other aspects of the current ongoing bird-conservation scene, you can visit our other bird conservation webpages or visit All about Birds, a website project between Swarovski and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.


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