Editor’s Note: Dr. Elizabeth Gray is the interim CEO of the National Audubon Society. She is an ornithologist by training and has been a global climate and conservation advocate for more than three decades. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As the Covid-19 pandemic shut down cities across the globe, many of us — whether stuck inside gazing out at our birdfeeders or strolling close to home – found comfort in nature, and in particular, the joy of birds. There’s a good chance that those who have been paying attention this past month saw a bird they hadn’t seen in a while. Billions of birds travel across our hemisphere throughout the spring, a time for renewal and change, making stops along the way in our backyards, parks and perched by our windows.
Journeys can be fraught with unknowns, but I take a lot of strength and inspiration from these birds migrating, sure and strong, across our continent. The Blackpoll Warbler, a bird weighing less than an empty soda can, travels more than 12,000 miles roundtrip every year from Alaska and Canada’s Boreal Forest, across North America and the Atlantic Ocean, to South America where it spends the winter.
Many of us can relate to the change, excitement—and maybe a little bit of peril—that comes with taking a journey. (I just started one myself earlier this year, when I became the first woman president in the National Audubon Society’s 115-year history.)
And it is indeed a time for change across our country as we emerge from a year of seclusion, taking on the important work of dismantling the nation’s structural and systemic racism and reigniting our economy. President Joe Biden said it himself in his recent address to Congress, “America is on the move again.” In fact, like migrating birds, many of us are probably planning our first long-distance trip in more than a year.
Just like change is a necessary part of our lives, these migration journeys are necessary for the survival of birds. Yet, they are getting harder and harder. Birds face shrinking habitats, more extreme weather, like droughts, and poorly managed industrial activity. We have lost three billion birds in North America since 1970 – and two-thirds face the threat of extinction if we do nothing to manage climate change.
Birds are a bellwether of what is happening in the environment. They are telling us they are in trouble. And if they are in trouble, so are we.
But what can we do? On a personal level, we can plant native plants in natural spaces like yards and local parks – a lifeline for birds traveling thousands of miles looking for a place to stop, rest, feed and replenish for the journey.
For large-scale change, we must also urge our elected leaders to adopt good policies. For example, the whooping crane – an endangered species that has struggled to recover from hunting and habitat destruction – was recently seen nesting in Texas for the first time in more than a century. With proper protections as well as investment and stewardship of important habitats, bird populations can bounce back.
But migratory birds traveling through the United States right now lack the critical protection once provided by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), a foundational law protecting nearly all of our country’s native birds. The provision, in place for decades, protected birds from avoidable deaths caused by human activities. It meant that companies and individuals had to adopt common-sense measures, like covering oil pits so birds didn’t mistake them for lakes and positioning wind turbines to avoid harming traveling flocks.
Former President Donald Trump eliminated this longtime protection at the end of his term, essentially creating a free pass to kill birds with heedless industrial practices. If this change had been in place in 2010, for example, BP would have faced no consequences under the Act for the more than one million birds killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As it was, the company paid $100 million dollars in fines under the MBTA which went to wetland and migratory bird conservation.
The good news is that the Biden administration has started a regulatory process to repeal this change, but reinstating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should only be the beginning.
The administration and Congress can strengthen this law and build on it by providing a new and efficient permitting process that would help drive new and better ways for businesses to manage how they deal with birds. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, introduced in the last Congress by California Rep. Alan Lowenthal, included such a proposal and drew a bipartisan list of more than 90 cosponsors in the House. Let’s reintroduce it and pass it.
We cannot stop there. Responding to the loss of three billion birds requires much more.
A better future for birds – and people – means retooling our industries away from fossil fuels and toward a sustainable future, which will create jobs everywhere, including frontline communities. It means better preparing our cities for extreme weather with natural resilience measures that also benefit birds. It means better equipping the West for droughts and helping the Plains reduce emissions by harvesting the potential of our working lands to capture carbon pollution.
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It seems likely our country is about to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure. As we begin the important and necessary work to reduce emissions, deploy more renewable energy and make our communities more resilient and equitable, we must also protect bird populations and restore the places they and we need to survive.
The good thing about this time of renewal and change is that we have the power to choose our future. We can build toward America’s future and bring birds back at the same time. Let’s choose to do both.