Can We Give Red-winged Blackbirds A Break? How About All Species Protected By the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most abundant bird species in North America. During February it has looked and sounded (sometimes even louder than the leaf blowers) like all of them were in our yard. And, eating every sunflower seed I could put out.

Yet, this is only 2/3 as many as in the mid-1960s. Their population numbers dropped 30% between 1966-2014 according to the North American Breeding Survey. Candidly, there are a lot of folks that think “good riddance”. There has been major conflict between blackbirds and landowners since the introduction of large-scale cereal grain cultivation. It continues with both lethal and non-lethal methods.

As in almost everything in ecology, the management of ‘crop damaging and nuisance’ blackbirds is complex. Included in the complexity is collateral damage to other species that are not as robust as the common blackbirds- red-winged, common grackle, starlings. For example, rusty blackbirds and meadowlarks have been collateral damage in the conflicts. Plus, we shouldn’t forget that we as consumers of the cereals, and in the case of farm communities consumers of local groundwater, are also exposed.  

We need some protection against them – their truly damaging behavior – and they deserve some protection from us.

In the past, permitting based on scientific studies, along with toxicants control, were prime balancing controls for state and federal aggressive species management programs The Migratory Bird Treaty Act also provided backup by provisioning fines and other penalties for ‘accidental deaths’  that could have been prevented through reasonable planned mitigating actions. 


The administration of that former guy introduced several changes to the regulations used for environmental impact permitting, lethal toxicants used in population control and the MBTA. In an act of embracing the threat over the victim, last minute changes to the MBTA eliminates liability for accidental bird deaths. This sounds fair except that the wording basically says any bird deaths – “i.e., incidental takes” –  in the course of doing business are accidental. Even if environmental studies show that there will be bird deaths as a result of the business practice – i.e., true accidents plus unintentional, but predictable deaths. This eliminates the need for any mitigating conservation actions that have been the hallmark of the MBTA for 50 years. 
Now don’t take me wrong. I’m a business person and I am certainly not fond of over regulation. However, a reason that the former guy gave for gutting a regulation that had been working pretty well for 50 years was that the MBTA was like uge! sword hanging over industry and holding back GDP growth. Uhm, GDP growth has been pretty good over the 50 years and when it wasn’t there were a lot more profound reasons than the MBTA  It may have been  holding back some business executives, but in my experience if a top executive can’t manage the whole picture, including the health and well being of the species they share eco-systems with as well as well as the consumers of their products and services, their competency should be questioned and their leadership moved to someone that can. 

Female Red-winged Blackbird

If you are interested in knowing more here is a link – 
I will now get down off the soapbox


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