Surely you have noticed the signs of spring that are all around us. Cottonwood and elm trees have turned from bare, bone-gray branches to lime-green globes that shade the streets. Kids play on the Little League fields in the evenings where coaches bark orders and parents cheer at the tink of an aluminum bat. And who can miss the dust in the wind. The wind comes to the American Southwest in the springtime as certainly as day follows night.
Another certainty of the spring season is the return of migrating birds, and it’s one that lifts my soul. As the northern hemisphere of our planet wobbles back into the spring season again, the increasing daylight signals waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds to move north as countless species have done since time immemorial. It’s an onerous way to make a living, moving with the seasons — north in the spring to raise families and south for the winter — but it works.
To mark the return north, May 14 is International Migratory Bird Day.
While some bird species move mere miles to live through the winter, others make monumental treks between continents and over oceans. The perils of these long-distance journeys send your mind reeling.
Sandhill cranes that adorn our Southwestern skies truly fill the arc of the Earth, migrating from Mexico to Siberia. Cinnamon teal, a smartly dressed duck, are preparing to nest in wetlands along the Rio Grande. Their ceaseless wingbeats and rapid flight carried them freshly from as far away as Argentina.
Band-tail pigeons return from a winter in Belize to northern New Mexico, where they will nest as high as 10,000 feet above sea level in our national forests. Hunters willing to wear off some boot sole might encounter this game bird come autumn as they cut through mountain saddles when their attentions have once again turned toward Mexico.
Yellow-breasted chats, which migrate from as far away as Panama to Alberta, are aptly named for their talkative nature. They are noisy slivers of feathered sunshine found along stream courses perched in box-elder trees. Nothing, it seems, can stop chats from singing.
But some bird species have been stopped from singing — forever. The Labrador duck, the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, the great auk — any discussion about these birds are exercises in history. They are no more — vanished — due to habitat loss, unregulated harvest, or the feather trade for fashion.
A true crisis tends to clarify the national resolve, and that is what happened a century ago. In 1916, responding to depleted bird populations, the United States Senate ratified the Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain (on behalf of Canada). The treaty laid the underpinnings for international bird conservation and a foundational role for my agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Division of Migratory Birds.
The Service has a true federal role in conserving birds with our partners across state and international boundaries. Straight lines on a map are, after all, entirely artificial and offer no bounds for birds. Virtually any bird species that migrates falls under the purview of assorted laws and acts of Congress that have been passed since 1916. To name only a few, the Federal Duck Stamp, required of all waterfowl hunters, has raised $800 billion to protect 6.5 million acres of wildlife habitat. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act helped stave off the extinction of our national emblem. The Endangered Species Act guides present conservation work to keep the southwestern willow flycatcher, which nests in the middle Rio Grande, from being permanently silenced.
Biologists in the Service perform scientific research on birds, help set waterfowl hunting regulations, and issue regulatory permits for assorted purposes, such as energy development, zoos, and rehabilitation and education facilities. Bird conservation is important to citizens for the economy, ecology, recreation, and aesthetics.
Springtime brings its joys. Among them are birds that dwell at our feet, above our heads, and within us. So grab a bird book, binoculars, and some kids and go birding on public lands or your own backyard. With hundreds of bird species passing overhead on their way north right now, see how many you can find.
Gregory Hughes is the Chief of Migratory Birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—Southwest Region and is based in Albuquerque. For more information about the Migratory Bird Treaty’s centennial, click here.