Year of the Bird

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist

Sandhill cranes in a shallow wetland at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

“If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”
– Thomas Lovejoy, biologist and godfather of biodiversity

Bluebirds are back at Belwin! Waterfowl are heading north along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers! Sandhill Cranes have been seen and heard flying overhead!

We are fortunate indeed to be able to see and hear the plethora of bird species that pass through the St. Croix River Valley and Belwin Conservancy. Some stay to nest and raise their young here, while others pass on to points north into Canada. Many have made a thousand-mile journey coming from places like Mexico and Central and South America. This bi-annual event called migration might be far less interesting if not for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

In 2018 we celebrate the centennial of the MBTA, one of our oldest national conservation laws.

Male Bobolink in Full Breeding Plummage at Lake Woodruff

Prior to 1918, the use of feathers for fashion, the plundering of nests for eggs, poaching birds from the wild for the pet trade, along with over-hunting sent many bird populations plummeting to or near extinction.

Eastern Bluebird

Congress passed the MBTA to protect birds from people. Canada and the United States signed the original agreement, which prohibits “hunting, killing, capturing, possession, sale, transportation, and exportation of migratory birds, and their feathers, eggs, and nests.” Mexico (in 1936), Japan (in 1972), and Russia (in 1976) are all included in the act today.

While many of us are bird enthusiasts and love to watch them, birds are of great importance as an “indicator species.” An example of this might be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.”

Canaries are very susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide and methane, and are affected by it before humans. Miners would take canaries into the mines and watch for signs of poisoning thereby giving miners time to put on a mask or escape from the mines before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Similarly, birds can alert us to changes in habitat and biodiversity, pollution, disease outbreaks, and toxic poisons.

Birds in our area that are protected by the act include, but are not limited to: Eastern Bluebird, American Bittern, Bobolink, Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle, Kinglets, Loons, Thrushes, Warblers, and American Woodcock.

Common Loon

As we swing into spring, here are some ways you can help our feathered friends through the gauntlet that is migration:

  • Plant native plants! These provide much-needed stopover habitat for cover and food
  • Provide some kind of water source or bird bath. Clean it on a regular basis to prohibit bacteria from taking hold
  • Clean your feeders! After the long winter, a good dousing in hot water and a bit of disinfectant will keep them free from disease
  • Stay alert to federal regulatory changes! Many of our hard-won environmental laws, including the MBTA, are under consideration for big changes that reduce protections for the critters we love
  • Support local natural areas, like Belwin! They do the hard work to provide native habitat for all creatures

For more information on this important piece of legislation, visit:

All throughout 2018 and beyond, let’s celebrate and work to protect our fabulous feathered friends!