In the 1880s America’s most flighty fad was fowl-bedecked fashion.
“Trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles,” writes Jennifer Price, “Birds were by far the most popular accessory: Women sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, and whole hummingbirds; a single hat could feature all that, plus four or five warblers.” The result was the killing of millions of birds, including many exotic and rare species. Reporting on the winter hat season in 1897, Harper’s Bazaar declared, “That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible.”
Americans outraged by this senseless destruction of wildlife launched, as Price says, “the first first truly modern conservation campaign” in the 1890s—decades before John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and others made conservation efforts popular. Over the next two decades a flock of legislation began to be passed to protect birds, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA).
Appearing 55 years before the Endangered Species Act, the statute made it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell specific migratory birds, including bald eagles, barn owls, and mourning doves. The federal law became an important conservation tool, a means of preventing the wanton slaughter of wildlife for trivial commercial reasons.
But tools can often be used as weapons, and the Obama administration has used the MBTA as a bludgeon against the oil and gas industry. Last year the executive branch argued that the MBTA should be broadly interpreted to impose criminal liability for actions that indirectly result in a protected bird’s death, and used that reasoning to file criminal charges against three energy companies.