Under Our Wing
Celebrating avian protection on the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Convention.
By Shaun Oldenburger
Birds are an integral part of life in Texas and beyond. Since the earliest of days, their meat and eggs have provided a handy food source; we’ve adorned ourselves with their feathers and delighted to their colors and warbling.
Though we often don’t look beyond these attributes, birds provide important environmental benefits, including insect and rodent control, pollination and seed dispersal. Birds of all feathers play a critical role in the Texas economy, supporting recreational opportunities that create jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue. Birds are used as iconic symbols throughout our cultural and spiritual lives.
Texas and the United States have historically worked to preserve our feathered friends — especially migratory species — so we don’t “love them to death.” Laws and regulations strive to seek a balance between our needs and their preservation.
In the early 1900s, the need to protect birds such as whooping cranes and northern pintails along their migration routes led to the passage of new game laws and the creation of wildlife refuges.
A pigeon in every pot
As European settlers populated Texas in the 1860s, wildlife was abundant. Cities and larger towns were established, and the demand for meat grew. Lack of refrigeration and limited local supplies of fresh meat created a niche business for market hunters from Brownsville to Galveston to Dallas.
Waterfowl and upland game birds were targeted, but so were shorebirds, sparrows, grebes, bluebirds and other species. In the 1870s, passenger pigeons were on the menus of some of Austin’s finest dining establishments near the Capitol grounds. Well into the 1880s, passenger pigeons would fill the skies in the Pineywoods and venture as close to the Capitol as Bastrop during southward migration. By the early 1900s, they were gone, victims of overhunting.
Are rules needed?
In 1879, Texas passed its first statewide general game law, providing protection for songbirds and prohibiting the hunting of quail and doves during their breeding seasons. Two years later, prairie-chickens and turkeys were added to the legislation. Although 130 counties declared themselves exempt from fish and game laws over the next four years, a group of highly vocal conservationists formed to advocate politically for the protection of birds and their habitats in Texas.
Plume hunting — the hunting of wild birds to harvest feathers, especially decorative plumes sold for ornamentation — occurred during this time along all the rivers of East Texas and the rice prairies of Texas. Nesting colonies on islands along the Gulf Coast, including those of brown pelicans, were raided for their eggs and feathers. Due to these activities, Texas passed legislation in 1891 to protect gulls, egrets, herons and pelicans (and their eggs).
Railroad expansion created avenues for market hunters to get their bounty quickly to markets in Galveston, San Antonio, Waco and other major metropolitan areas. Shooting competitions among wealthy Texans became popular during this time, and shoots on the Gulf Coast prairies took a toll on local populations that measured in the thousands of birds in a weekend. Hunting was a free-for-all that couldn’t continue without consequence.
Winds of change
In response to this widespread, unregulated take of (mostly migratory game) birds, an independent Texas Audubon Society formed in 1899 in Galveston. Tragically, the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 virtually eliminated the group, since nearly all the original members perished.
Habitat change was occurring across Texas, and by 1900, eastern bluebird numbers were a concern for many people across the southeastern United States, including Texas.
In response to Texas grassroots efforts, the Texas Legislature passed regulations in 1903 to limit the timing, species and bag limits of many birds targeted by market hunters, and market hunting was outlawed. The following year, 1904, saw the reformation of the Audubon Society — a strong voice to defend the welfare of all birds.
Crossing state lines
By the early 1900s, a majority of states had laws and regulations that protected various bird species. However, biologists and conservationists were becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of a large majority of these birds crossing state boundaries and even international borders. Protection was needed all along the route, from the breeding grounds in the north to the wintering areas in the south. A new awareness was taking hold that a pintail flying across Matagorda Bay in December could well be affected by conditions for nesting the following spring on the prairies of North Dakota or Saskatchewan.
In 1914, the last living passenger pigeon — Martha — died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The unregulated take of migratory birds was about to come to a close in the United States and beyond. Two years after Martha’s death, the United States and Great Britain (signing for Canada) inked the Migratory Bird Convention, providing a uniform system of protection for birds that migrated from Canada to the United States. The convention also established hunting season regulations and prohibited the hunting of insectivorous birds and other nongame birds. The convention’s date — Aug. 16, 1916 — marked a new beginning for migratory birds that would ensure protection for generations to come.
The signing of this convention laid the groundwork for more protection of birds throughout North America and beyond. Later, Mexico (1936), Japan (1974) and Russia (1978) signed similar conventions. Following the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by Congress in 1918, all migratory birds and their nests were protected under the law.
Many national wildlife refuges were established to protect wintering or staging migratory birds, especially waterfowl. In 1935, the first national wildlife refuge in Texas was established to protect the sandhill cranes’ wintering grounds. That same year, only 38 whooping cranes were counted wintering along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 for their protection.
Texas' first statewide game law limited hunting of mourning doves and other birds.
With more than 600 species of birds, no other state enjoys the diversity of species and landscapes that Texas has to offer. Recent surveys indicate that bird watchers spend nearly $41 billion in their pursuits across the United States. Of 29 million Texas residents, nearly 11 percent consider themselves bird watchers at some level.
Today, state and federal biologists work with countless private landowners across the state to implement wildlife-friendly practices and habitat management on their properties. These public-private partnerships affect more land in Texas every year. Committed, conservation-minded landowners across the state drive the current conservation movement in Texas, and the future of migratory birds here rests squarely on their shoulders.
In 2015, the Texas Legislature allowed increased expenditures from the Texas Migratory Game Bird Stamp Fund, paid for primarily by duck and dove hunters. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department can now fund habitat-based restoration projects on wildlife management areas and other locations for the protection of migratory game birds, as well as shorebirds and other wetland-dependent wildlife. Waterfowl hunters continue to purchase federal duck stamps, which allow for the purchase of fee-title acquisitions and conservation easements into the national wildlife refuge system in Texas and beyond.
Today, TPWD manages 47 wildlife management areas and 95 state parks, nearly 1.4 million acres providing habitat for migratory birds across Texas.
Conservation of migratory birds continues today with efforts to increase native grasslands across the blackland prairie to bolster scissor-tailed flycatcher, eastern meadowlark and loggerhead shrike populations. Public agencies and nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations work cooperatively to identify measures that will conserve, preserve and protect playa lakes in the Panhandle for wetland-dependent bird species. Countless projects across Texas continue to increase both habitat quality and quantity for these species.
We’ll never again see a passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet fly over the skies of Texas. Without the measures that stopped the unregulated harvest of birds and continued loss of their habitats, who knows what sounds we would hear tomorrow as dawn breaks in Texas?
What else might we have lost? Would waterfowl hunters be able to wade in a coastal marsh at Mad Island Wildlife Management Area in hopes of bagging a drake pintail? Would a bird watcher be able to snap a photo of a great kiskadee at Estero Llano Grande State Park?
We all have a part to play in the continuing success. The next time you hear or see a bird, think about the past and what the next 100 years may hold in store. Support local bird groups, build backyard habitat, buy a federal duck stamp and keep informed about legislative matters that affect wildlife. Together, we can make sure birds are here for all to enjoy for generations to come.