Contrary to what we often hear (or see), it’s against the law to shoot a robin. You’re not allowed to take your frustration out on those early-morning hammering flickers, even if they destroy your house. And it’s illegal to bulldoze a prairie dog colony if there are burrowing owls in residence. In fact, because of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act, you’re not allowed to:
… pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention… for the protection of migratory birds… or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.
(Did they leave anything out?)
Originally drafted in 1916 as a treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) to protect migratory birds of the western hemisphere, the law was signed into effect in 1918 as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Mexico signed on in 1936, Japan in 1972, and Russia (then the Soviet Union) a few years later.
Although the law mentions migratory birds, it actually covers all birds native to the U.S. For example, Warbling Vireos are covered. Starlings are not. As birders, we know that bird names change, as does the list of North American birds. Accordingly, the act is occasionally updated, most recently in 2013.
So what happens if you get frustrated and take your BB gun to that flicker pounding holes in your siding? The maximum penalty for violating any part of the MBTA is a fine of $15,000 or imprisonment up to six months or both. You can buy a lot of siding for that much money! If you tried to sell the dead bird, or even its feathers, the government may seize any accessories you used in breaking the law, including nets, boats, cars, and in this case, BB guns.
Not surprisingly, there are exceptions. Game birds can be killed in accordance with hunting regulations, or raised commercially. Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hands out permits for various activities such as falconry, scientific and educational use, taxidermy, and native American religious use (usually for eagle feathers).
Interestingly, while thousands of these special permits are handed out every year, according to one legal website, “special purpose permits are not generally granted, and particularly not for general development and construction projects.” Tell that to the Burrowing Owls!
Certain birds have additional protections. Many native birds are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And our national bird is also covered by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, originally passed in 1940. Apparently, it’s “extra illegal” to harm or kill an eagle—unless you’re a power company; they’ve been granted permits for accidental deaths at wind farms.
Sadly, even though the MBTA has been on the books for almost 100 years, enforcement is another issue. Just a few weeks ago, on January 10, two Whooping Cranes were shot and killed in southeastern Texas. A suspect is in custody and has confessed to the killings. It’s interesting to note that, according to the press, the charges against him are for violating the MBTA, not the ESA. Thus, if convicted, he could be facing fines of up to $15,000 and up to six months in federal prison.
Other countries don’t have laws like this to protect their wild birds. The market for wild birds was the subject of a National Geographic cover article a few years back. I had a hard time reading it, I was so upset. Wild birds, including cormorants, wild geese, and cranes, regularly show up on the menu in places like China. (I asked a knowledgeable friend if there was good birding in China and he replied, no, they’ve eaten them all!)