This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
This year, bird conservationists are celebrating an important milestone — the 100th anniversary of the signing of a treaty between the United States and Canada to protect migratory birds. That led to treaties with other nations to protect birds that migrate across international boundaries.
When the U.S. entered the 20th century, the passenger pigeon was estimated to be the most abundant land bird in North America.
“There were three to five billion individuals.”
Jennie Duberstein of the Sonoran Joint Venture in Tucson.
“One out of every four birds in the country was a passenger pigeon at one time. And then market hunting and disturbance of virtually every single nesting colony drove that bird to extinction in about 30 years.”
The passenger pigeon became extinct.
“In September of 1914, Martha, who was the last passenger pigeon… she died in the Cincinnati Zoo. This was a big wake-up call.”
The disturbance of most nesting colonies, and the hunting of birds for meat, in just 30 years, drove the most abundant land bird in the U.S. extinct. There was another contributing factor — feathers.
“This was World War I. Overuse of natural resources was the norm. There was killing of birds to collect feathers for women’s hats. It was really becoming clear that the way we were doing things wasn’t working; so, amidst all of this, this idea arose to think about how we can cooperatively manage and protect birds that migrate between our countries.”
“And, you know, the take of migratory birds, which would include passenger pigeon, waterfowl and other passerine birds, was just at a level that was unacceptable — and unimaginable — as it relates to today.” Dr. Benjamin Tuggle… he’s Director of the Southwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“There were a number of people that got together and said, ‘We cannot continue to do this because it’s not sustainable.’ The passenger pigeon is a perfect example. There were more birds that would darken the skies and they killed them to the point that there are no more today.”
Tuggle says migratory birds are important in ways other than their beauty.
“They’re very important economically, as it relates to recreation; they’re very important ecologically; and birds can be environmental indicators. When they are out in their environment, doing what they do, they give us an idea about how functional those environments are; so if those birds are not doing well in certain environments, or they’re not doing well because we’ve taken away those environments, sooner or later it’s going to have an impact on people.”
According to Tuggle, besides protections afforded birds by the international treaties, joint ventures, such as Playa Lakes Joint Venture, are a boon to bird conservation. The joint ventures, he says, provide a way for government officials to talk to people who wouldn’t ordinarily talk to government officials.
“They have grassroot organizations that can tap into the local farmers or the local ranchers or the local industry, and communicate the message, ‘This is not only a government responsibility, it is all of our responsibilities — and you can play a role.’”
Tuggle says people hear of the Migratory Bird Treaty, but may not understand all it implies.
“So, we’re using the centennial of the original treaty to talk about the importance of migratory birds and the importance of all the partner organizations to continue to do great things for habitat and birds.”
You’ll be hearing more as the year progresses, on the centennial celebration of the Migratory Bird Treaty, and how U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies and joint ventures are re-dedicating efforts toward assisting birds and their habitats.
This Playa Country episode was made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, which was established by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Original broadcast: March 2015