Writers, Thinkers, Birders

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A proposed Republican amendment threatens to weaken the protections in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Photograph by Ernest Manewal / Camera Press / Redux

Thanks to writers who become birders, and this one in particular:

Don’t Mess with the Birds!

By Amanda Petrusich

Catskill, New York—the small Hudson River town where the American painter Thomas Cole lived and worked, from 1825 to 1847—is also home to the RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary, which contains four hundred and thirty acres of tidal marsh, upland forest, and fallow farmland, and is presently occupied by common loons, great blue and green herons, wood ducks, mallards, a pair of bald eagles, northern harrier and red-tailed hawks, ruffled grouse, merlin falcons, eastern screech and great horned owls, belted kingfishers, pileated woodpeckers, warblers, scarlet tanagers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, a tiny and nervous-looking thrush known as a veery, and various other species of birds whose names, I will admit, are perilously delightful to type. There is also a beaver.

This year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a U.S. federal law that prohibits anyone from trying to “take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.” In essence: don’t mess with birds! Bald eagles, being both the national bird and national animal of the United States, enjoy even more federal protections. If a person is caught pestering one—fussing with its nest, or otherwise interrupting its daily routine of swooping about and collecting fish—she can be fined a hundred thousand dollars, imprisoned for as long as a year, or both. (When the bald eagle was chosen to appear at the center of the Great Seal of the United States, in 1782, Benjamin Franklin was a little salty about the choice. In a letter to his daughter, Sally, in 1784, he derided its hunting methods, which include scavenging and snatching food from other birds. “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly,” Franklin wrote. He was more enamored of rattlesnakes. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage,” he wrote in 1775, in a letter to the Pennsylvania Journal.)

In November, the Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, introduced a piece of legislation that the Audubon Society quickly took to calling “the Bird-Killer Amendment.” It was added to HR 4239, or the secure American Energy Act, during a House Committee on Natural Resources meeting, and it would revise the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to better protect energy operators from having to prevent (or be held accountable for) bird deaths caused by oil-waste pits, transmission lines, gas flares, and more. “Our operators take multiple precautions to ensure migratory birds, as well as other wildlife, are not injured during operations, but if these precautions fail, the current language could impose criminal liability for the taking of the bird even though it’s accidental,” Cheney wrote in a press release. Her wording is sort of extraordinary, insofar as it circumvents evoking death directly—“the taking of the bird.” What does it mean? As David Yarnold, the president and C.E.O. of the Audubon Society, wrote in a recent editorial, “Birds are doing their best to find ways to live among people, but they don’t know that an oil pit isn’t a lake and they don’t know how to judge the speed of the blades on wind turbines.”

If Cheney gets what she wants—the bill, with her amendment, is awaiting a vote in the House—oil, gas, and turbine companies will no longer be held financially responsible for butchering avian populations. If this amendment had been added and passed in, say, 2009, B.P. wouldn’t have been legally compelled to spend millions of dollars restoring decimated bird habitats along the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank to the bottom of the sea.

This winter, I took to roaming the Catskill sanctuary every day after lunch. It’s situated less than a mile from the house where Martin Van Buren married his childhood sweetheart, in 1807, and where the real-life Uncle Sam lived, from 1817 until 1823. (In a terrifically American twist, a section of the house is now a rather intemperate-looking tiki bar.) The sanctuary operates via a partnership between the Audubon Society and Scenic Hudson, a local land-preservation and conservation group. On my walks, I saw dozens of cardinals and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and the occasional pileated woodpecker, hammering away for beetles. Sometimes I came across little piles of fur and bone—gray remnants of whatever an owl had been pecking at the night before. When the sun hits the tidal marsh from the northwest, around 3 p.m., the cattails sway and glow, as if they’re made of spun gold.

I couldn’t find a bald eagle, though. I would pause excitedly whenever I encountered a splattering of white droppings on the trail, only to gaze longingly up at an unattended nest. Finally, someone told me that the eagles tend to spend their afternoons closer to the river, perching on, or around, the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. There had been abundant sightings farther south, too, between Croton and Verplanck Points—groups of five or more eagles, tossing a white perch back and forth. I didn’t want to bother them merely to raise my binoculars and behold one of their curved yellow beaks. In truth, adult bald eagles look a little mean…

Read the whole post here.

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