Migratory Bird Act Treaty: One Hundred Years Later

By Mary Caton

On December 22, 2017, the Department of Interior issued a memorandum providing a new interpretation of the century old Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The ruling says that businesses which accidentally kill nongame migratory birds during their operations are not in violation of the MBTA.1 The ruling alters decades of interpretation of the Act.

Bird migration is the movement of bird species along north and south flyways in North America at certain times of the year. Most often birds in the northern hemisphere fly south during cold weather months and return to their breeding grounds when weather warms up.

In the 1800s and early 1900s the United States realized that several species of birds were becoming extinct. Among these are the Heath hen, Great auk, Labrador duck, the Carolina Parakeet and the passenger pigeon. The Migratory Bird Act was first enacted in 1916. Then in 1918, the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada) signed the Migratory Bird Act Treaty which protected migratory birds along the north/south flyways between the two countries. The law made it unlawful, without a waiver, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell birds listed as migratory birds. The law includes live birds, dead birds, bird parts, including feathers, eggs and nests.

Most birds were hunted for food. However, in the late 1800s many birds were hunted for their plumage which was added to women’s hats. In some instances, the entire bird was used. The hunting of feathers would often wipe out entire colonies of birds, especially in Florida. The National Audubon Society was established to help regulate the treatment of birds. It was a major influence in the creation of the Migratory Bird Act.1

The law was created to keep birds as safe as possible. However, birds face new problems today with oil spills, oil pits, high-tension power lines, communication towers, wind turbines, and similar things. Birds can die when they land on an oil waste pit or fly into a power line. These kinds of deaths are called “incidental takes.” Many companies have worked with conservation and wildlife groups to develop ways to protect birds and reduce death. Companies that fail to adopt practices and their operations have led to bird deaths are subject to penalties.2

Many birds are at risk. According to studies, power lines kill up to 64million birds a year. Communication towers are responsible for approximately 7 million birds per year. Uncovered waste pits kill another 500,000 to 1 million birds every year. It’s hard to estimate data on wind turbines, but current bird death estimates are around 234,000.2

The change in the ruling has generated much controversy. Previous administrations prosecuted companies for accidental killing or for failure to implement safeguards to protect migratory birds. Regardless of opinion, there is no doubt that the Migratory Bird Act Treaty has impacted many birds in North America.1

Migratory Bird List Protected Species

The following photos were obtained from:

  1. Andy Morffew’s Photography
  2. BirdPhotos.com

Weather Bombs, Winter Storms & Birds

By Mary Caton

Dramatic weather changes are unnerving to people and animals. Animals, however, particularly birds, know and even warn of its coming. To hear the term “bomb” used to describe

a weather event sounds terrifying. A weather bomb, cyclone bomb or bombogenesis is described in Wikipedia as “the rapid deepening of an extratropical cyclonic low-pressure area” where the barometric pressure drops by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. It’s a winter hurricane with force winds, snow, ice, rain, flooding and very cold temperatures.

The northeastern United States began 2018 with a bomb cyclone in January and a second in early March. The week of March 11, 2018 warns of yet another storm. What happens to birds during these storms? According to Audubon, birds look for three things: location, preparation, adaptation.1 They seek shelter inside thick bushes and shrubs, nest cavities of trees or the side of a tree out of the wind. In urban areas, they may find shelter on porches and under eaves, anywhere out of the wind. They will look for shelter near food sources, near dense trees and snow free ground where they can forage for food.

Sensing a change in the atmosphere or the falling temperature, birds begin consuming calories. They forage more and flock to feeders. Many birds find food sources in backyards. Audubon field editor, Kenn Kaufman, says, “You can see they are just out there feverishly stuffing their faces. They can survive really cold temperatures as long as they get enough to eat.”1 Birds that live in cold weather areas put on extra feathers and down which they will molt later. They fluff up their feathers to trap body heat and hold in what heat they have by squatting and pulling up one leg. They often huddle with other birds. Do their feet get cold? It is freezing or below freezing, but if a bird’s body temperature stays above 100O F or 38o C, their feet will not get frostbite. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with little muscle, nerve tissue or cell fluid. Blood flowing from the feet to the body is warmed as it goes back and forth. Bird circulation is very fast, do blood does not freeze in the feet.2

So, what happens to the birds that flew south for the winter and are now ready to come home? Birds, like warblers, thrushes and tanagers, that cannot survive in the frequent cold snaps are already in Central and South America for the winter. Water fowl and marsh birds could be affected if there is a lot of snow and water sources are frozen over. People in southern states should keep back yard feeders filled so birds will have plenty to eat during cold snaps there.3 Our role is to protect the environment and provide feeding opportunities.

The extreme weather conditions of the bomb cyclone sent hundreds of killdeers to Bermuda. Typically, the killdeers are not found in Bermuda. However, the 2017 Christmas Bird Count counted 12. Early in January, Andrew Dobson, president of the Bermuda Audubon Society, reported seeing around 100 killdeers flying around the Bermuda coast and a few hundred more sitting on the beach. At the airport, he found at least 500 killdeers foraging in the grass. Everywhere he looked, he found more killdeers. He believes that more than 1000 killdeers had made their way across the Atlantic from the United States East Coast. Usually, killdeers are short distance flyers. Kenn Kaufman, bird expert and field editor for Audubon, says the birds usually move toward the coastline where temperatures are a bit warmer. However, some flew out over water and were caught up in the wind circulation of the bomb cyclone and kept flying south. Experts expect they will extend their stay until spring. Then, some will make their way north and home to their breeding grounds.4  

The following photos of Northern Cardinals were submitted from Patricia Youngquist (photos taken in January, 2018 during the first storm).  Patricia is an author, photo-artist, bird-lover and urban gardener living in NYC. Her award winning blog is thelastleafgardener.com  Youngquist also has a web-site: patriciayoungquist.com. It mainly features her non-nature themed images (Black and White as well as Kaleidoscopic).  Additionally, volume one of her book series, “Words In Our Beak Volume One,” is available wherever books are sold, including on Amazon @ http://amzn.to/2zxVujM  The story for “Words In Our Beak Volume One” is set in Youngquist’s rooftop garden and is told from the perspective of Cam, a female cardinal who visits it with her family.  “Words In Our Beak Volume Two” (also told by Cam in the setting of Youngquist’s garden) should be available in bookstores — as well as on Amazon — by the end of March 2018 or early April (2018) at the latest.

Companion birds also feel the atmospheric pressure changes and often become anxious. The bomb cyclone has interrupted electrical power to thousands of New England homes. For those who have generators, this may not be an issue. However, the biggest danger to companion birds when the heat doesn’t work is the cold. It’s important to have enough supplies for pets and humans such as bottled water and nonperishable foods.

Companion birds are safe if their humans protect them and keep them fed properly.


2Cornelllab of Ornithology



Squawk if You’re Shakin’

by Mark LaBarre

Can our fids detect impending quakes?

For five days before Helike disappeared, all the mice, martens, snakes, centipedes, beetles — and every other creature of that kind in the city — left in a body by the road that leads to Keryneia … But after these creatures had departed, an earthquake occurred in the night; the city subsided; an immense wave flooded it and Helike disappeared, while ten Spartan vessels at anchor were lost together with the city.

Aelian, De natura animalium, book 11, tr. from Latin

Aelian provides the first documented reference to animals behaving strangely prior to earthquakes, in this case, a quake and tsunami that destroyed the Peloponnesian city of Helike in 373 BCE. No birds are mentioned among these burrowing creatures though, of course, some birds do live in burrows These birds had smarter escape routes than the traffic jam on the road to Keryneia.

Similar reports have recurred often in the two following millennia. Critters from bees to catfish to cattle, monkeys, elephants, cats and dogs – and, yes, birds — sometimes act unusually in the days, hours and minutes before quakes strike.



(Background:  Creative Commons) 

On September 3, 2016, a 5.8 magnitude quake (likely the result of fracking activity) struck near Pawnee.  Fifteen minutes prior to the quake, strong echoes appeared on weather radar near Oklahoma City, rapidly increasing in size and coverage from one scan to the next.  These represented large flocks of birds taking flight en masse and flying radially away from the general location of the soon-to-occur quake’s epicenter.  The following clip shows this impressive exodus:

(Matt Mahler of the National Weather Service; KWTV Channel 9, Oklahoma City, OK; 09/03/2016)


This finding is particularly intriguing because many parts of the world now have weather or aviation radars whose scope data are stored digitally and can be replayed.  A retrospective metadata analysis focused on specific quakes, in regions where radar data are available, might uncover other instances of birds “signaling” an imminent quake by taking wing together.  This would move the investigation a big step beyond simply collecting subjective data.

As another example, following Japan’s magnitude-9 quake/tsunami of March, 2011, Japanese researchers conducted a study of pet owners. This detailed survey indicated that ineteen percent of dog owners and sixteen percent of cat owners reported unusual behavior in their pets in the minutes before the quake.  And it was animal-behavior reports that partly prompted the evacuation of Haicheng, China prior to its 1975 magnitude-7.3 earthquake.  This timely evacuation, still the only successful one on record, resulted in the saving of an estimated 150,000 lives.

How many more might be saved if animals helped bridge the gap between the current cutting-edge science and forecasting impending quakes accurately and reliably?

The United States Geological Survey says a reproducible connection between specific behaviors and the occurrence of a quake has never been made. Their studies in the 1970s produced no significant findings.  “What we’re faced with is a lot of anecdotes,” said Andy Michael, a USGS geoscientist. “Animals react to so many things, it’s hard to have a controlled study to get that advanced warning signal.”

What could the nature of that signal be?  That’s an elusive question with a number of potential answers, all worth further study:

— Foreshocks are common, though mostly below our sensory threshold.
— Subsonic acoustic waves, inaudible to humans, are sometimes generated.
— Cracks developing in subsurface strata can release subterranean gases into the atmosphere.
— Changes in electrical and magnetic fields have been recorded.  Some animals can sense such changes.
—  Animals may be able to sense the earlier-arriving “P” (pressure) wave before the slower, damage-causing “S” (shear) wave hits

(Creative Commons)

Birds play a significant part in this scientific enigma.  Homing pigeons take longer to navigate to their destination prior to earthquakes. Hens may lay fewer eggs or no eggs at all.  Budgies and canaries can become agitated before earthquakes, shrieking and flying when they would normally be sleeping.

In the 1975 Haicheng quake, “chickens refused to enter their coops and geese frequently took to flight.”  Prior to the 1968 Gibellina, Sicily quake, “an unexplainable nervousness in geese was observed”.  And in the Washington, DC zoo just prior to the magnitude-5.8 East Coast quake of 2011, their flock of 64 flamingos “clustered together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit.”

What special senses do birds possess that we lack?  Birds are acutely sensitive to small changes in atmospheric pressure, which help them navigate and “predict” weather.  Similar atmospheric-pressure changes can result from quake-produced subsonic acoustic waves, but these changes are much more rapid and may be disorienting.

Some birds also have grains of magnetite in their upper beaks that aid in navigation by allowing them to orient to the Earth’s lines of magnetic force, and these also would be affected by quake-caused magnetic-field changes.  It’s not a stretch to hypothesize that these avian abilities might play a key role in birds’ ability to sense that “something’s about to hit”.

The proverbial canary-in-the-coalmine gave early warning of “damp”, an excessive buildup of coalmine gas.  Did she ever do double duty and warn miners of impending cave-ins, and could she sound an alarm for far larger tectonic shifts today?

Animals have a mixed record of signaling impending quakes.  But as long as earthquakes remain so humanly unpredictable and devastating, it makes sense to look to bird and other animal companions to provide the chance of a warning we wouldn’t otherwise get.

“I Can’t Take Care of my Bird”

by Mary Caton

There are times when a parrot owner realizes he/she can no longer take care of a beloved pet. It’s heart-breaking to look at options to find someone or somewhere for your parrot. Before you begin searching for a new home, ask yourself why you want to re-home. Is it because your parrot has behavioral problems and just won’t cooperate? Parrots are incredible smart animals with unique personalities. Perhaps you need to understand it better. Think about educating yourself. Talk to other parrot owners, especially those who have the same species. If there are limited resources in your community, go to social media and search for pages and groups where you can ask questions and share ideas. The Internet is full of information parrot owners share about their birds. We love to talk about our birds. Learning more about your parrot will help you understand his behavior. Find an animal behaviorist to recommend solutions and help train your bird. BirbObserver has columnists who address bird behavior issues.

Your pet’s happiness and well-being are most important. It is up to you to find the most suitable situation where it will be loved and properly cared for. The best place is with a relative or friend who already knows your parrot. If this placement isn’t possible use local resources, such as an avian vet or animal rescue place to discover possibilities for a good home. Post information about your bird with the bird adoption or rescue community. Their contacts may lead you to a good prospect. Get in touch with bird lovers who appreciate the species. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are good places to find people who are passionate about birds.

Use local classifieds such as the newspaper or Craig’s List. With these resources, there are important considerations to insure the safety of yourself and your parrot. So, when someone answers your ad, be extra cautious.

  • Screen homes carefully. Inquire about the person’s experience and set up. It’s likely that you may meet hoarders. Hoarders are generally kind, loving people who suffer from a possible mental disorder. This disorder causes them to “collect” animals. They love animals. However, the more animals they have, the harder it is to care for them properly. Without intervention, the situation may end in the death of the animals. This is especially true for birds. If you see the place is overrun with cages and animals, it’s likely you’re dealing with a hoarder.
  • Another type of person you may encounter is a “business” person. They promise to love and care for the bird, but they are actually interested in reselling or flipping the bird for profit.
  • Don’t assign a “zero” value to your bird or offer him for free. If a person does not have money to pay for the bird, they may not be able to provide proper care for it. “Free” may also be exploited by scammers and flippers.
  • Do not offer a payment plan. Obviously, you may never receive all the money you expected. Also, if the bird becomes ill or dies, you may never receive the remainder of your money.

Another consideration is placement in a bird sanctuary. Again, it is important to research and visit the sanctuary. Where is the location? Is it well tended and maintained? Do the birds have plenty of food and water? Are the birds properly housed? How is it funded? Is the staff knowledgeable for your species and equipped to take care of him?

Check non-profit groups in your area. A good avian group will provide a high standard of care. Be sure to research carefully before relinquishing your bird. Before the bird is adopted out, they require that specified criteria must be met.  It’s an assurance that your pet will have a good home if he is adopted.

Relinquishing your bird may require a contract. At the least, there may be a receipt form stating ownership of the bird. Be sure to read a contract carefully and understand its meaning before signing. Also, it’s a good idea to have the document notarized. There are some examples of donor forms, relinquishment forms, and adoption forms at Birds N Ways.

No one likes to think of being ill or incapacitated and unable to care for our birds. However, this is important because parrots can live a long time and often outlive their owners. What will happen to your bird if you are hospitalized? Make plans now and share those plans with loved ones. I will provide more information on this topic in a future article.

For more detailed information on re-homing your birds check out these resources:

Beauty of Birds, author Sibylle Johnson

Birds N Ways


Birding in Cuba

By Pat Bartlett.

Pat Bartlett is a writer/naturalist who lives in Florida. She has finches on her screened- in back porch that somehow turned into a flight cage. There are ten allegedly squirrel-proof feeders in her front yard that are regular stops for a variety of birds and a large number of very fat squirrels.  She has two house rabbits, Anise and Timmy Tickletoes, and is the author of How to Train Your Rabbit.

I visited Cuba as part of an organized birding tour in late 2017, hoping to see at least some of the 25 endemics and perhaps many of the 325 other bird species found there. We visited two of the national parks, both on the southern side of the island. To the east was Topes de Collates; and to the west, Peninsula de Zapata National Park. The trip to Cuba was itself eye-opening.

Remarkable in many aspects, Cuba is a great place for birding. The island has large national parks and “wild” areas, and the travel restrictions – at least as of this writing – are not onerous. The country itself is a study in contrasts–its haves and have-nots, its proud I’ve-been-here-a-lot-longer-than-you cities and large wilderness areas, and its twin world of pricing, the one for visitors, the other for locals.




In many ways time has slowed in Cuba. There are 1950s cars still on the road and in use. Don’t look too closely, or you’ll see a lot of Bond-o in those car bodies. When Russia cut off its aid in the 1990s, the government could no longer supply the security it had promised its residents. With no supplier on hand to replace the flow of oil, food, machinery and consumer goods, complex poverty issues became the norm. Cuba has not yet solved those problems.

Cuba has three sources of income– the mining  of iron, its manufacture into steel, and tourism. The government recognizes the value of tourism and has invested heavily in it. The government owns the resort hotels and the affiliated dining areas, the transportation lines, and many of the souvenir shops. The government hires and trains the tourism workforce. The income from these businesses accrues to the Government. While small privately owned souvenir shops are permitted, along with B&Bs (called casa particulares) and small restaurants, they must share their revenue with the government. Farmers must contribute 90% of their crop to the government. Horses and cows belong to the government.

Because most food items are imported, food supplies are limited literally to what’s available. We stopped at a pizza place in downtown Havana, and the menu on the wall was quite appealing. But you don’t order pizza #3– you ask what they have available. In this case, they had cheese and ham. We had a cheese-with-processed-ham pizza. It was about as good as you’d expect.




In the past year, new Russian and Chinese cars have appeared on the roads. But, for the average citizen, transportation is wherever he or she can find it. People get around by walking or by taking a bus. Rural folks get where they need to go by horseback or in a horse/mule/ox-drawn wagon. No one is surprised by the sight of a homemade wagon along a paved roadway or in downtown Havana.




Because the government is the primary employer, the government sets wages. Salaries are about $25/month. Doctors make $25. Plumbers make $25. Sanitation workers make $25. Because no one makes a lot of money, everyone is thereby equal — this is Communism. There are two big pluses to living in Cuba — free medical care and a free education.

People work where the government says there is a job. Some jobs are more desirable than others. Those chosen as guides are well-trained. They learn multiple languages (German, French and English are the top three). They learn about their specialty, which may be Cuban art or Cuban birds. Guides are tested on their knowledge, and their scores determine their professional future.

Topes de Collantes is a mountainous park near the town of Trinidad. It offers hiking trails; the hotel provides a well-stocked dining room, a small bar, and a swimming pool. Buses and Russian troop carriers take groups to park sites, such as a coffee plantation, a farmland turned botanical park, large waterfalls, and an art museum. “Topes” is where we saw the Cuban pygmy owl,




The Península de Zapata is part of a nature reserve called the Zapata Swamp, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve site. It has beaches, swamps and forests. The main beach was a staging area for the Cuban military during the 1961 US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion.  Birding areas include the salt flats, Las Salinas; a rocky hillside outcropping called Enigma de las Rochas, and Las Bermejas There’s a nearby crocodile farm.  Inland, rocky limestone outcroppings contain cenotes with swimming platforms, garfish and crocodiles.




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At week’s end, we began the seven-hour bus trip back to Havana, arriving in time for a relaxing day at the botanical  garden, the Jardin Botanico Nacional.   The garden is about a 30-minute taxi ride from Havana, and that distance from Havana’s mainstream traffic makes it standard operating procedure to ask the taxi driver to wait or return at a specific time. The garden has large greenhouses; inside, tiered plantings feature hundreds of chubby succulents in shades of red, pink and green, reposing like jewels on  both sides of a wide graveled walkway. Beyond the greenhouses are open grassy expanses, with areas dedicated to different countries.  The largest area features plants from Cuba; beyond Cuba and on the left are plants from Madagascar, and ahead to the right is South America. Beyond that, Africa and Japan await.  Open buses take visitors around the botanico, and the multilingual bus drivers give a basic orientation as to what is where. The botanico is 1600 acres so it’s impossible to view the whole place in a single day.

There are few visitors to the Jardin, and the bird population reflects that stillness. We tried balancing birding with looking at plants (we were in a famous garden after all!), but within minutes I felt like one of those drinking birds that swings down to put his beak in a glass of water and then stands upright only to swing downwards again. I leaned against a tree, making sure it had no spines, took a deep breath and tried again. Decision-making was pretty easy: That day I was rewarded with kestrels, the Cuban green woodpecker, many red-legged thrushes, an emerald hummingbird, the great lizard cuckoo, and the Cuban pewee. There are supposed to be 20,000 varieties of plants at the Jardin and looking back I suspect I missed most of them.

Havana itself is studded by small parks that may boast a local band (with CDs for sale) or a craftsman plaiting animal figures from strips of  palm leaves. Alfresco dancing is the norm, and no partner is needed. Caged birds  (mostly Cuban bullfinches and mockingbirds) are brought to parks by their owners, and the cages are suspended from  the trees or from lampposts. House sparrows and mockingbirds flit in and out, and curly tailed lizards skitter about each other across a sun-warmed patch of sidewalk. Schools bring their kindergarten-aged kids to the parks during the lunch hour. The children sit in small groups,  play hand games and then eat their sack lunches.

Life in Cuba is more casual and more relaxed than the US, and the Cubans I met were emotionally warm and friendly toward visitors. The island is beautiful, from the new architecture to the old, and the tropical climate encourages lush plant growth and exotic bird and mammal species. The island’s close proximity to the US makes a three- or four- day trip quite do-able (you do need a valid passport and a visa– you order the visa through your booking airline and pick it up when you check in for your flight).