New Hampshire has a long tradition of protecting birds
They lift spirits and our economy
Today is International Migratory Bird Day – a day to celebrate migratory birds and recognize our role in protecting them. This role is one that New Hampshire’s legislature embraced nearly a century and a half ago. As we celebrate our most colorful and melodious avian summer residents’ return, we should also reflect upon how to continue New Hampshire’s tradition of protecting birds amidst modern threats.
Migratory birds have long been recognized as economically and intrinsically valuable. Insectivorous (insect-eating) birds, including warblers, swallows and swifts, reduce damage to agricultural crops and protect forests. They also protect human health by controlling mosquitoes, which makes our evenings more enjoyable. Meanwhile, all migratory birds play important roles in our ecosystem and make our world more beautiful.
New Hampshire’s birds – particularly iconic species like eagles and loons – are also a major part of our state’s tourism economy. Wildlife watchers spend $280 million annually in New Hampshire, with $175 million spent on food, lodging and equipment.
Our birds were once more often enjoyed on platters and apparel than through lenses. Prior to legal protections for migratory birds, some parties chose to endanger this valuable natural resource for personal gain. Commercial hunting and trade in birds and their feathers (largely to adorn the displays of expensive restaurants and women’s hats) had devastated many native species.
In response, federal protections for migratory birds were enacted under the Lacey Act in 1900 and the Weeks-McLean Act in 1913. Finally, in 1916, the United States and Canada entered into a treaty for the protection of migratory birds. The treaty was implemented in 1918 by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which remains in place today. Several similar treaties with Mexico, Russia and Japan, have also been executed since 1918.
Except in limited circumstances requiring a permit, the MBTA makes it unlawful to (among other things) pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, sell or barter any migratory bird, or any part, nest or egg of any such bird of any of the species listed in the treaties. The MBTA applies to nearly all bird species found in the United States.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the protection of migratory birds “a national interest of very nearly the first magnitude” in a decision upholding the constitutionality of the MBTA. He also wrote that, “But for the treaty and the statute there soon might be no birds for any powers to deal with.” Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920).
Holmes didn’t need to tell the Granite State, though. By June 1873, New Hampshire had already passed “An Act to Protect the Eggs and Young of Certain Birds.” The Act made it a penalty to “designedly take from the nest and destroy the eggs or young” of any of 20 different genera of birds. The statute was expanded in 1874 and 1875 to also prohibit the taking, killing or destruction of any songbirds or insectivorous birds as well as several non-insectivorous genera of birds, including rails and sandpipers. Migratory birds have continued to enjoy increased protection under New Hampshire law since then.
Legislators will soon have another chance to protect our birds when the New Hampshire House votes on Senate Bill 89. The bill would protect loons by banning the sale and freshwater use of toxic lead fishing sinkers and jigs weighing 1 ounce or less – the largest known cause of New Hampshire adult loon mortality. The loss of adult loons (a state-listed threatened species) due to this fishing tackle has had a significant negative impact upon our state’s small loon population
Although existing law bans the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers weighing 1 ounce or less, it only bans lead jigs measuring 1 inch or less. Unfortunately, more than half (52 percent) of the lead objects recovered from dead adult loons in New Hampshire have been larger, currently legal, lead jigs.
SB 89 would close the gap in current law by implementing the same weight standard for lead jigs that is already in place for lead sinkers. This would protect our loons (and benefit many other species also at risk of lead poisoning from ingested lead fishing tackle) while adding consistency and clarity to the law.
By passing SB 89 our legislators can continue New Hampshire’s tradition of protecting our birds – a public trust resource to be safeguarded for all.
(Sheridan Brown is an attorney from Grantham and the legislative coordinator for the Loon Preservation Committee. He may be reached at advocate @stbrownlaw.com.)