Ian’s Bird of the Moment – White-tailed (Sea) Eagles

It’s been a long time since the last bird of the moment, so here is a special one to make amends. Furthermore, at a time of increasingly depressing stories about the state of the planet, it comes with a great conservation story.
I’ve recently returned from a short visit to Europe. The purpose of the trip was to catch up with family in France and Ireland. The temptation to do a bit of bird photography as well was too great to resist so I went from Paris to Dublin via the Isle of Mull in Scotland (above) in search of White-tailed (Sea) Eagles. My nephew Ian joined me from Dublin so the detour naturally still qualified as family business.
We chose the Isle of Mull because of its reputation of being one of the best places in Europe to see White-tailed Eagles following their successful reintroduction to Scotland over the last 45 years. On our third and last day, having had little success finding any eagles on our own, we went out with Mull Charters on their Sea Eagle Adventure trip, during which I took all of these photos. The red arrow in the map above shows the approximate location in a beautiful bay with high mountains forming a spectacular backdrop.
The sea eagles in this region on the west of the island have become accustomed to being fed on frozen mackerel, providing spectacular views of these huge birds in action and providing wonderful photo opportunities. The above photo shows an eagle banking to get into position to come in for a fish and the next four photos shows the results of this foray.
The eagles come in very fast. Three seconds elapsed between the banking photo 201182 and the next one 201188 showing the bird just about to grab the fish, visible floating on the surface in front of the eagle. This photo and the next three, 201189, 201190 and 201191 were all taken in the space of one second so there is little margin for error on the part of either the eagle or the photographer.
In 201189, you can see that the bird has caught the fish with only one talon. As a result, 201190 and 201191, the fish falls off and drops back into the water. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me that the look of intense concentration in 201188 changes to frustration or disappointment in 201190.
A little over 20 seconds after the abortive attempt, another bird, photo 201208, has swept in and successfully scooped up a fish. As soon as a bird had captured a fish, it left the vicinity.
These eagles were very vocal, often making a repeated klee, klee, klee call which sounded gull-like to me and rather undignified for such a large raptor. The captain on the boat said that the most vocal bird was a female objecting to the presence of other eagles in her territory.
Until the eighteenth century, White-tailed Eagles were widespread throughout Eurasia from Ireland to Siberia. In the nineteenth century, increasing persecution by farmers, gamekeepers, shepherds and fishermen and the spread of firearms led to population declines in Europe and ultimately to extinction in Ireland (last known nesting attempt in 1898) and Britain (last breeding attempt in 1916).
Like its close relative the Bald Eagle of North America, the remaining populations of White-tailed Eagles suffered badly from the use of persistent organochloride insecticides such as DDT after the second world war. The banning or phasing out of such insecticides and more enlightened attitudes to conservation led to increases in eagle populations in Europe and North America in the final quarter of the twentieth century, making possible their reintroduction to places where they had become extinct.
Reintroductions of White-tailed Eagles are done using young birds taken from nest at the age of about six weeks. White-tailed Eagles rear one or two chicks per year, so the birds chosen for reintroduction are taken from nest with two chicks. The birds take five or six years to mature so, for a reintroduction to succeed, the population needs to reach a critical mass to become self-sustaining.
The Scottish reintroduction started in earnest in 1975 with Norwegian birds being introduced to the Isle of Rum, shown by the green arrow on the map (the Isle of Mull is indicated by the red arrow). Later introductions were done to the mainland near the Isle of Rum (Wester Ross) in the 1990s. There are now about 130 breeding pairs in Scotland, mainly in the west and there are 22 pairs on the Isle of Mull.
Reintroductions to eastern Scotland were done between 2007 and 2012. In August 2019, six Scottish-bred young eagles were released on the Isle of Wight as the first stage of reintroducing them to southern England. Meanwhile, in Ireland a parallel reintroduction of Norwegian birds started in 2007 with the first successful nesting in 2012. Now there are about eight breeding pairs (and a few more holding territories) but the population is not yet large enough to be self-sustaining.
So, there you have it. A good news story and, for nephew Ian and I, a memorable day with these magnificent birds of prey in Scotland.
Greetings, Ian

“… as the eagle swoops down… (Deuteronomy 28:49b NASB)

“… Like an eagle that swoops on its prey.” (Job 9:26b NASB)

“… The way of an eagle in the sky,…” (Proverbs 30:19a NASB)

“… Behold, He will mount up and swoop like an eagle and spread out His wings against Bozrah…” (Jeremiah 49:22a NASB)

Thanks, Ian. Was beginning to wonder if you had given up on birdwatching. Our adventures may become less regular, but there is always another birding adventure to inspire us. Thanks for sharing.

What a beautiful Eagle! Reminds me of our Bald Eagle with that white tail, but also of the Steller’s Sea Eagle we saw in a zoo. Fantastic avian wonders from the Creator.

Looking Back 100 Years, at the Migratory Bird Treaty: A Bird’s-eye View of How It was Hatched

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                 Migratory  Bird  Treaty  Centennial     (USF&WS)

Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord.   (Jeremiah 8:7)

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Bird migrations are marvelous — only God could preprogram and orchestrate such magnificent maneuverings!  Did you know that this year (AD2016) marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty?  Just how was that avian conservation treaty “hatched”, and why, 100 years ago?

There are several remarkable aspects of that historic Canadian-American treaty, looking back a century, at events during AD1916. Before looking at its impact today, however, a quick bird’s-eye-view “fly-over” of the historical background is appropriate.

AD1885: The U.S. Department of Agriculture was directed by Congress to have a “Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy”, leading to studies about how birds can positively check the harm caused by “pests”; this part of the USDA was later modified to become the “Division of Biological Survey”, and that in turn was modified to become the present “Fish and Wildlife Service” (which merged with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as part of being transferred to the Department of the Interior).

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AD1894: Charles Almanzo Babcock, school superintendent of Oil City (Pennsylvania), spearheaded “Bird Day”, to be celebrated as a special day for appreciating and celebrating the value of birds. Babcock’s holiday is celebrated on May 4th. Similar holidays have been established by others, e.g., Americans also use January 5th as “National Bird Day”. “International Migratory Bird Day” is celebrated in America and Canada on the second Saturday in May. However, in Mexico (and in several other Latin American countries) “International Migratory Bird Day” is celebrated on the second Saturday in October.

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    Snow  Geese  during  migration      (Colusa  County,  California)

AD1896: The U.S. Supreme Court decided a case regarding governmental regulation of wild game: Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519 (1896). In that case — which resolved a controversy over transporting wild birds across state lines — the federal high court assumed that wild animals are subject to state government jurisdiction (and thus also state government regulation), as opposed to being subject to management under federal statutes passed by Congress. This ruling was interpreted by many to mean that Congress had no direct control over wildlife, because wild animals were deemed to be the collective property of whatever state they were in. (However, there was no “preemption” problem, then, because Congress had not yet passed any federal acts to regulate interstate commerce of wild game animals or their product.) If only state governments cold validly regulate interstate hunting and fishing, as many understood the Geer ruling, the consequence would be that Congress had no legal authority to pass an enforceable wildlife protection law that could bind each of the states (and their citizenry). Could Congress do nothing to protect wasteful overhunting of interstate-migrating birds? Did the U.S. Constitution have any provision that could be harnessed to circumvent the Geer ruling? Was Congress’s power to regulate “interstate commerce” enough to exercise valid jurisdiction over how migratory birds are treated, either dead or alive, so long as state lines were crossed? These legal question would soon be answered. First, the “interstate commerce” power of Congress was used to assert federal regulatory power to regulate the sale (and commercial transportation) of birds in one state if the acquisition of that bird (dead or alive) was accomplished by violating the law of another state. In effect, this approach would use a piggyback strategy, using federal “interstate commerce” powers to enforce state laws.

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AD1900: Congress passed the “Lacey Act” of AD1900, declaring commercial transportation or sale of hunted birds (or products derived from their dead bodies) illegal, if crossing state lines was involved (i.e., if “interstate commerce” was involved), but only if the birds (dead or alive) were obtained in a way that violated the state laws of another state. This law was needed to ban the wholesale (and routinely wasteful) destruction of birds, for commercial purposes, primarily to provide flamboyant feathers for fancy ladies’ hats.  To do this, the Lacey Act (as a federal law) prohibited using “interstate commerce” activity (i.e., crossing state lines as part of a commercial enterprise) to “get away with” violating any wildlife laws of states where birds were obtained. (The Lacey Act has been legislatively expanded since, by Congress, so that it now incorporates and enforces a treaty that bans trafficking in illegal wildlife, the “CITES treaty” [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] — which is an enforcement task assigned, nowadays, to the Office of Law Enforcement within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.) Of course, the Lacey Act only equipped Congress with “piggyback” powers to regulate interstate commerce that facilitated illegal trafficking in wildlife, subject to the hunting laws passed according to the differing preferences of the various state legislatures. If migratory birds traverse 10 states (as they migrate seasonally from north to south, or vice versa), the migrating birds may be protected in only 9 of those 10 states, under applicable state laws, only to be legally shot out of the sky (or while resting in a stopover) while flying in the one state where they may be legally shot by hunter.

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Wigeons and Pintails (Saskatchewan, Canada)©Conservator

AD1913-AD1914: Congress passed the Weeks-McLean Act of 1913, to ban bird-hunting in the spring (i.e., the vulnerable and “critical” timeframe when birds typically reproduce and nurture their hatchlings in the direction of successful fledging), and marketing of illegally hunted birds (and bird products, such as fancy bird feathers that were consumed by the fashion industry in what was called “millinery murder”). This Congress-issued law empowered the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate bird-hunting seasons nationwide. However, judicial review of this federal statute — in the form of federal court rulings, styled United States v. Shauver, 214 Fed. 154 (E.D. Ark. 1914), and United States v. McCullagh, 221 Fed. 288 (D. Kan. 1915) — resulted in the Weeks-McLean Act being declared invalid (i.e., unauthorized), as an unconstitutional overreach regarding natural resources that jurisdictionally were subject to the police powers of state governments (and their state laws), not federal. It is noteworthy that the federal government, in the Shauver ruling, based their argument on the federal government’s rights under the Property Clause of the U.S. Constitution (in Article IV, section 3, subsection 2), not under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause (in Article I, section 8). However, in the McCullagh ruling, the federal government unsuccessfully argued that the Weeks-McLean Act was legitimate as a constitutional exercise of powers to protect the “general welfare” (Article IV, section, 3, subsection 2) and/or powers to regulate interstate commerce (Article I, section 8). It thus appeared to Congress that the federal courts were reluctant to enforce any kind of nationwide law that restricts hunting, transporting, and/or sale of migratory birds – even if the activities were provably part of “interstate commerce”.

AD1916-AD1920:  The time was now ripe, in the knock-down wake of what had been the Weeks-McLean Act, for Congress to try a different approach to constitutionally constructing an enforceable law to protect migratory birds. The Weeks-McLean Act had 3 strikes against it, constitutionally speaking: it could not be validated by the Property Clause, nor by the General Welfare Clause, nor even by the Interstate Commerce Clause. What was left? What about using the Treaty Clause in the U.S. Constitution’s Article II, section 2, subsection 2) — which authorizes the U.S. president to use “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur”. The first step in this strategic process would be negotiating and ratifying a treaty, to protect migratory birds with migratory ranges that overlap Canada and America, followed by a Congressional statute to implement such a treaty. Canada was not sufficient independent (i.e., “sovereign”) to negotiate on its own behalf, so the United Kingdom (a/k/a Great Britain) represented Canada in the treaty (which is reprinted below, as an APPENDIX) —- the Convention Between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds (of 1916) — was successfully negotiated and approved by the U.S. Senate and president (in this case, Woodrow Wilson, ironically an evolutionist, whose Darwinian worldview logically clashed with the conservation ethic embodied by the treaty). This treaty was soon (i.e., “soon”, relatively speaking) endorsed for implementation purposes (including Congressional funding mechanisms) by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Immediately that Congressional act was challenged in the federal courts, by plaintiffs who claimed that it too was Congressional (i.e., federal) power-grab not authorized by the U.S. Constitution. In short, the U.S. Supreme Court was impressed by the strategic treaty-based/implementing statute — the U.S. Supreme Court validated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (and, by necessary implication, the treaty itself) via its ruling in the case styled Missouri v. Holland (so named because the U.S. Game Warden involved was surnamed Holland). Specifically, Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416, 40 S.Ct. 382 (1920), vindicated Congress’ right to implement the Migratory Bird Treaty’s provisions, as a “federal preëmption” of all state laws notwithstanding, based on the constitutional logic that enforcing a proper federal treaty trumps whatever state-legislated wildlife regulation laws may exist to the contrary. The juristic rationale for this result was the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (in Article VI, section 2).

Retroactively speaking, therefore, the Supreme Court ruling in AD1920 (i.e., in Missouri v. Holland) validated the Congressional statute (i.e., the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) enacted in AD1918, which itself endorsed, for implementation purposes, the actual Migratory Bird Treaty of AD1916. (With that history in mind, you can better appreciate the official text of the treaty, which is fairly succinct yet specific, reprinted as an APPENDIX at the foot of this article.)

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So that is the bird’s-eye-view “fly-by” of how Americans (and, indirectly, Canadians too) the Migratory Bird Treaty was “hatched”, 100 years ago!

Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the Lord.   (Jeremiah 8:7)

Bird migrations are marvelous — only God could preprogram and orchestrate such magnificent maneuverings!  Surely bird migrations, which seasonally display God’s bioengineering genius and care, deserve some respect and admiration from us too, as we watch such winged wonders.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  James J. S. Johnson, in addition to continuously teaching at various Christian colleges in Texas, since AD1991 (including courses on ecology, birds life and avian conservation, environmental laws and treaties), and teaching now for ICR-SOBA (including course that analyze bird life from a Biblical creation perspective), is an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Texas, in the State of Colorado, and in several federal courts and administrative tribunals (including the U.S. Supreme Court). No stranger to environmental laws and conservation programs, he formerly provided monitoring research data to the Trinity River Authority of Texas (during the mid-AD1990s) in his capacity (then) as a Certified Water Quality Monitor (credentialed as such by what was then the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission). Jim’s love for bird life, however, began much earlier in life, as is documented briefly at Attracted To Genesis By Magnets and a Bird Book (and more fully at Appreciating Baltimore Orioles and My First Bird Book ).


Selected Bibliography:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial 1916-2016” (accessed 9-16-AD2016)

Geer v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519, 16 S.Ct. 600 (1896).

Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416, 40 S.Ct. 382 (1920).

United States v. Shauver, 214 Fed. 154 (E.D. Ark. 1914).

United States v. McCullagh, 221 Fed. 288 (D. Kan. 1915).

The Lacey Act of 1900, now codified as amended at 16 U.S.C. sections 3371-3378.

Migratory Bird Treaty (of 1916), formally titled Convention Between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds, USA-Great Britain, 39 Stat. 1702.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, 40 Stat. 755, codified at 16 U.S.C. sections 703-712.

Weeks-McLean Act of 1913, 37 Stat. 828, 847-848 (1913).

CITES, formally titled Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 27 U.S.T. 1087, T.I.A.S. 8249 (entered into force, applicable to USA, in 1975).

Edward T. Swaine, “Putting Missouri v. Holland on the Map, 72 Missouri Law Review 1007 (fall 2008).

Paul Schmidt, “The Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial: For 100 Years, This Landmark Agreement has been the Cornerstone of Migratory Bird Management Across North America”, posted by DUCKS UNLIMITED.

Mallard drake photo credit: Legallabrador.org/ .

Migrating Snow Geese / Colusa County (California)  <=  click for photo credit

Migrating Wigeons & Pintails / Saskatchewan (Canada) photo credit:  www.conservator/ca/ .

B&W photograph of lady with decorative bird-hat, next to pile of slaughtered birds (public domain), showing need for The Lacey Act of 1900


APPENDIX:   official text of the Migratory Bird Treaty of AD1916

CONVENTION BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN FOR THE PROTECTION OF MIGRATORY BIRDS.

[U. S. Treaty Series, No. 628] Signed at Washington, August 16, 1916; ratifications exchanged December 7, 1916.

WHEREAS, Many species of birds in the course of their annual migrations traverse certain parts of the United States and the Dominion of Canada; and Whereas, Many of these species are of great value as a source of food or in destroying insects which are injurious to forests and forage plants on the public domain, as well as to agricultural crops, in both the United States and Canada, but are nevertheless in danger of extermination through lack of adequate protection during the nesting season or while on their way to and from their breeding grounds; The United States of America and His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, being desirous of saving from indiscriminate slaughter and of insuring the preservation of such migratory birds as are either useful to man or are harmless, have resolved to adopt some uniform system of protection which shall effectively accomplish such objects and to the end of concluding a convention for this purpose have appointed as their respective plenipotentiaries: The President of the United States of America, Robert Lansing, Secretary of State of the United States; and His Britannic Majesty, the Right Honorable Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice, G. C. V. O., K. C. M. G., etc., His Majesty’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary at Washington; Who after having communicated to each other their respective full powers which were found to be in due and proper form, have agreed to and adopted the following articles:

ARTICLE I

The high contracting powers declare that the migratory birds included in the terms of this convention shall be as follows:
1. Migratory Game Birds:
(a) Anatidae or waterfowl, including brant, wild ducks, geese, and swans.
(b) Gruidae or cranes, including little brown, sandhill, and whooping cranes.
(c) Rallidae or rails, including coots, gallinules and sora and other rails.
(d) Limicolae or shorebirds, including avocets, curlew, dowitchers, godwits, knots, oyster catchers, phalaropes, plovers, sand- pipers, snipe, stilts, surf birds, turnstones, willet, woodcock and yellowlegs.
(e) Columbidae or pigeons, including doves and wild pigeons.
2. Migratory Insectivorous Birds: Bobolinks, catbirds, chickadees, cuckoos, flickers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, humming birds, kinglets, martins, meadowlarks, nighthawks, or bull bats, nut-hatches, orioles, robins, shrikes, swallows, swifts, tanagers, titmice, thrushes, vireos, warblers, wax-wings, whippoorwills, woodpeckers, and wrens, and all other perching birds which feed entirely or chiefly on insects.
3. Other Migratory Nongame Birds: Auks, auklets, bitterns, fulmars, gannets, grebes, guillemots, gulls, herons, jaegers, loons, murres, petrels, puffins, shear- waters, and terns.

ARTICLE II

The high contracting Powers agree that, as an effective means of preserving migratory birds, there shall be established the following close seasons during which no hunting shall be done except for scientific or propagating purposes under permits issued by proper authorities.
1. The close season on migratory game birds shall be between March 10 and September 1, except that the close season on the limicolae or shorebirds in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and in those States of the United States bordering on the Atlantic Ocean which are situated wholly or in part north of Chesapeake Bay shall be between February 1 and August 15, and that Indians may take at any time scoters for food but not for sale. The season for hunting shall be further restricted to such period not exceeding three and one-half months as the high contracting Powers may severally deem appropriate and define by law or regulation.
2. The close season on migratory insectivorous birds shall continue throughout the year. 3. The close season on other migratory nongame birds shall continue throughout the year, except that Eskimos and Indians may take at any season auks, auklets, guillemots, murres and puffins, and their eggs, for food and their skins for clothing, but the birds and eggs so taken shall not be sold or offered for sale.

ARTICLE III

The high contracting Powers agree that during the period of ten years next following the going into effect of this convention, there shall be a continuous close season on the following migratory game birds, to wit:- Band-tailed pigeons, little brown, sandhill and whooping cranes, swans, curlew and all shorebirds (except the black-breasted and golden plover, Wilson or jack snipe, woodcock, and the greater and lesser yellowlegs); provided that during such ten years the close seasons on cranes, swans and curlew in the Province of British Columbia shall be made by the proper authorities of that Province within the general dates and limitations elsewhere prescribed in this convention for the respective groups to which these birds belong.

ARTICLE IV

The high contracting Powers agree that special protection shall be given the wood duck and the eider duck either (1) by a close season extending over a period of at least five years, or (2) by the establishment of refuges, or (3) by such other regulations as may be deemed appropriate.

ARTICLE V

The taking of nests or eggs of migratory game or insectivorous or nongame birds shall be prohibited, except for scientific or propagating purposes under such laws or regulations as the high contracting Powers may severally deem appropriate.

ARTICLE VI
The high contracting Powers agree that the shipment or export of migratory birds or their eggs from any State or Province, during the continuance of the close season in such State or Province, shall be prohibited except for scientific or propagating purposes, and the international traffic in any birds or eggs at such time captured, killed, taken, or shipped at any time contrary to the laws of the State or Province in which the same were captured, killed, taken, or shipped shall be likewise prohibited. Every package containing migratory birds or any parts thereof or any eggs of migratory birds transported, or offered for transportation from the United States into the Dominion of Canada or from the Dominion of Canada into the United States, shall have the name and address of the shipper and an accurate statement of the contents clearly marked on the outside of such package.

ARTICLE VII

Permits to kill any of the above-named birds which, under extraordinary conditions, may become seriously injurious to the agricultural or other interests in any particular community, may be issued by the proper authorities of the high contracting Powers under suitable regulations prescribed therefor by them respectively, but such permits shall lapse, or may be cancelled, at any time when, in the opinion of said authorities, the particular exigency has passed, and no birds killed under this article shall be shipped, sold or offered for sale.

ARTICLE VIII

The high contracting Powers agree themselves to take, or propose to their respective appropriate law-making bodies, the necessary measures for insuring the execution of the present convention.

ARTICLE IX

The present convention shall be ratified by the President of the United States of America, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate thereof, and by His Brittanic Majesty. The ratifications shall be exchanged at Washington as soon as possible and the convention shall take effect on the date of the exchange of the ratifications. It shall remain in force for fifteen years and in the event of neither of the high contracting Powers having given notification, twelve months before the expiration of said period of fifteen years, of its intention of terminating its operation, the convention shall continue to remain in force for one year and so on from year to year. In faith whereof, the respective plenipotentiaries have signed the present convention in duplicate and have hereunto affixed their seals. Done at Washington this sixteenth day of August, one thousand nine hundred and sixteen.

[SEAL] ROBERT LANSING.    [SEAL] CECIL SPRING RICE.

“Convention Between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds”, reprinted in The American Journal of International Law, Volume 11, No. 2, Supplement: Official Documents (April, 1917), pages 62-66 (published online by The American Society of International Law)


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Trumpeter Swans: Trumpeting a Wildlife Conservation Comeback

If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way, in any tree, or upon the ground, whether they be young ones [i.e., nestling infant birds], or eggs [i.e., not-yet-hatched baby birds], and the mother [’em is the usual Hebrew noun for “mother”] sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.  But you shall surely send forth the mother, and take the young [literally “children”] for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong days.  Deuteronomy 22:6-7

During mid-August (AD2015) my wife and I visited the Columbus Zoo (in Ohio), while vacationing, and I was surprised to see Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) there —  and I realized that the Trumpeter Swan illustrated the importance of Deuteronomy 22:6-7.

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) ©Columbus Zoo

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) ©Columbus Zoo

Seeing the snowy-white Trumpeter Swans, there, occurred during a telephone call, while we were viewing and identifying various animals, with our enthusiasm-exuding Ohio grandsons (who both call us Mimi and Farfar, the latter name being Norwegian for “father’s father”).  The unexpected telephone call came from a caller in crisis, seeking legal advice, on how to interpret and apply a mix of federal statutes.  It appeared that the call could not wait, till I returned to Texas – such is the lot and responsibility of a vacationing lawyer.

But a bird-watcher has his priorities!  So, as we rounded a bend in the walking trail, and I saw a couple of Trumpeter Swans, I interrupted the phone call with “hold on just a minute”, then I half-screamed to the grandsons: “Look, boys  –  Trumpeter Swans!  Look!  Trumpeter Swans!”

Seeing these massive swans, up close, helps you to appreciate how huge they are.  Trumpeter Swans are the heaviest of all birds that are “native” to North America – and one of the heaviest birds, alive today, that is capable of flight!  Unlike other swans, the Trumpeter Swan has a distinctively black bill, a stark contrast to the all-white hue of its adult plumage.

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) ©USFWS

The Trumpeter is a close cousin of Eurasia’s Whooper Swan [Cygnus cygnus], which I previously commented on, in an earlier blogpost about birdwatching in Iceland  (please check out  https://leesbird.com/2014/12/08/birdwatching-in-iceland-part-i/ .)  The Trumpeter Swans did not “trumpet” while we observed them; however, their name is due to their habit of loudly vocalizing with a musical sound like a trumpet, similar to the vocal sounds of their Cygninae cousins, the Whooper Swans and Bewick Swans.  Swans are shaped somewhat like geese, but swans grow larger and have longer (and proportionately thinner) necks.  The poise and posture of swans, accented by their flexible and long necks, appear more elegant than that of geese, some say, although surely mama geese would disagree.  Why are swan necks so lengthy and versatile?  Imagine being nick-named “Edith Swan-neck” — that is the name by which historians remember the wife and widow of England’s last Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, who lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror, in AD1066.  [ For more on that providentially historic battle, see http://www.norwegiansocietyoftexas.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/VikingHistory-GeoWash-ancestry-NST-AD2012.pdf  . ]  Geese have 17 to 23 neck vertebrae, yet swans have 24 or more!  Trumpeters also bob their heads a lot, apparently as a form of visual communication with one another.

Back to the very busy (and very tiring) adventure at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.

As we all excitedly discussed the Trumpeter Swans, so close to us then, my mind recalled how these quietly graceful and magnificently dignified swans were once very close to the extinction cliff.   According to one study (by Banko, cited below), in AD1957, the United States then hosted only 488 Trumpeter Swans.  It got even worse!  In AD1932, fewer than 70 Trumpeter Swans were known to exist in all of America, with about half of them dwelling at or near Yellowstone National Park’s northwest section.  Would the Trumpeter Swan go extinct like the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo bird?

What a loss it would have been, if our earthly home had seen a permanent demise of such noble anatids, especially since they once teemed when America was founded!

Trumpeter Swans were once hunted in huge numbers – thousands were killed for their skins and/or feathers.  Sir John Richardson (a Scottish scientist/surgeon who studied the Trumpeter extensively) once wrote that the Trumpeter Swan was “the most common Swan in the interior of the fur-counties.  …  It is to the trumpeter that the bulk of the Swan-skins imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company belong” [as quoted in Winston E. Banko, “The Trumpeter Swan:  Its History, Habits, and Population in the United States”, North American Fauna, 63:1-214 (April 1960), a data-source used for much of this article].  The Trumpeter Swan was well-known of its migratory habits, ranging from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, according to ornithologist James Audubon:

“The Trumpeter Swans make their appearance on the lower portions of the waters of the Ohio about the end of October. They throw themselves at once into the larger ponds or lakes at no great distance from the river, giving a marked preference to those which are closely surrounded by dense and tall canebrakes, and there remain until the water is closed by ice, when they are forced to proceed southward. During mild winters I have seen Swans of this species in the ponds about Henderson [Kentucky] until the beginning of March, but only a few individuals, which may have stayed there to recover from their wounds. When the cold became intense, most of those which visited the Ohio would remove to the Mississippi, and proceed down that stream as the severity of the weather increased, or return if it diminished. . . . I have traced the winter migrations of this species as far southward as the Texas, where it is abundant at times, . . . At New Orleans . . . the Trumpeters are frequently exposed for sale in the markets, being procured on the ponds of the interior, and on the great lakes leading to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. . . . The waters of the Arkansas and its tributaries are annually supplied with Trumpeter Swans, and the largest individual which I have examined was shot on a lake near the junction of that river with the Mississippi. It measured nearly ten feet in alar extent, and weighed above thirty-eight pounds.”   [Quotation taken from Banko, on page 15.]

During AD1862 George Barnston, a Scottish-born Hudson’s Bay Company official in Canada, noticed the Trumpeter Swan’s remarkable migration habit, as it is seen in America’s Northwest:

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) and Canadian Geese ©WikiC

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) and Canadian Geese ©WikiC

“In the winter months all the northern regions are deserted by the swans, and from November to April large flocks are to be seen on the expanses of the large rivers of the Oregon territory and California, between the Cascade Range and the Pacific where the climate is particularly mild, and their favourite food abounds in the lakes and placid waters. Collected sometimes in great numbers, their silvery strings embellish the landscape, and form a part of the life and majesty of the scene.”   [Quotation taken from Banko, on page 17.]

Records indicate that Trumpeter Swans were still present in “the states of Washington, Oregon, and California in the Pacific flyway ; Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, Icansas, and Texas in the Central flyway ; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Louisiana in the Mississippi flyway ; and Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina in the Atlantic flyway to demonstrate that the trumpeter still appeared as a migrant or winter resident in those states during the last half of the 19th century”, according to Banko (at page 20).  Banko further reported, in AD1960, that the marketable feathers of swans historically superceded the marketing of their skins (especially by the Hudson’s Bay Company), and soon the population numbers of North American swans were plummeting as swan feathers gained popularity as a glamorous ingredient in fancy hats for ladies, with less flamboyant quills being marketed as ink-pens.   Even the famous Audubon, in AD1828, observed that American Indians engaged in swan hunts, in order to gain the prized plumage of these wondrous waterfowl, many of which feathers would ultimately be exported for resale to ladies of fashion in Europe!  (Banko once served as Refuge Manager, Branch of Wildlife Refuges, for the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service).

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) ©WikiC naturespicsonline

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) ©WikiC naturespicsonline

As transatlantic trade in fancy feathers burgeoned, the marketing of Trumpeter Swan plumage (as well as plumage of other large birds, such as flamingo, egret, heron, and many others), for fashionable female headgear, was driving the North American population of Trumpeter Swans toward regional extirpations and appeared aimed at a continental extinction, — unless regulatory brakes were somehow applied, with ameliorative conservation efforts to restore the population.

Many conservation efforts combined, to rescue the Trumpeter Swan’s perilous predicament,   four of which were:  (1) the Lacey Act of 1900, that banned trafficking in illegal wildlife; (2) the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, that implemented the migratory bird protection “convention” treaty, of AD1916, between America and Great Britain (f/b/o Canada); (3) President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 7023 (4-22-AD1935); and (4) the conservation-funding statute called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration [Pittman-Robertson] Act of 1937.  For more on this last federal wildlife conservation-funding law, please review “Crayfish, Caribou, and Scientific Evidence in the Wild”, posted at http://www.icr.org/article/8775 ).

Saving America’s Trumpeter Swan from near-extinction is largely due – humanly speaking – to the establishment of the Red Rock Lakes Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (n/k/a “Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge”), part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem  —  located mostly within a 60-mile radius that includes portions of southwestern Montana, eastern Idaho, and northwestern Wyoming, including Yellowstone National Park, which itself includes a “Trumpeter Lake”.   The Trumpeters have enjoyed dwelling in the Red Rock Lakes neighborhood for generations —  for example, an aerial photograph during January AD1956 shows 80 of them on Culver Pond (east Culver Spring area, where warm spring waters, often found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, keep the pond from freezing), on a day when the outside air was -20 degrees Fahrenheit!  (See page 59 of Banko’s report, cited above.) This federal wildlife refuge was established by FDR’s presidential executive order (#7023), in AD1935, largely in reaction to the nadir-number of Trumpeter Swan count of less than 70 during AD1932.

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) by Daves BirdingPix

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) by Daves BirdingPix

According to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge’s official website (q.v., at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Red_Rock_Lakes/about.html), this refuge now includes 51,386 acres, plus conservation easements totaling 23,806 acres, all of which blends into a marvelous mix of snowmelt-watered mountains, montane forests, flowing freshwater, and marshy meadows:

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge has often been called the most beautiful national wildlife refuge in the United States. The rugged Centennial Mountains, rising to more than 10,000 feet, provide a dramatic backdrop for this extremely remote Refuge in Southwest Montana’s Centennial Valley. Red Rock Lakes NWR encompasses primarily high mountain, wetland-riparian habitat–the largest in the Greater Yellowstone Area– and is located near the headwaters of the Missouri River. Several creeks flow into the refuge, creating the impressive Upper Red Rock Lake, River Marsh, and Lower Red Rock Lake. The snows of winter replenish the refuge’s lakes and wetlands that provide secluded habitat for many wetland birds, including the trumpeter swan, white-faced ibis, and black-crowned night herons. The Refuge also includes wet meadows, willow riparian, grasslands, and forest habitats. This [ecological] diversity provides habitat for other species such as sandhill cranes, long-billed curlews, peregrine falcons, eagles, hawks, moose, badgers, bears, wolves, pronghorns and native fish such as Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout.”    [Quoting from http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Red_Rock_Lakes/about.html ]

Trumpeter Swans are also seen afloat in lakes of Wyoming’s neighboring park, Grand Teton National Park, a scenic mountain-dominated park accented by the Snake River and Jackson Lake, and historically enjoyed, annually (in the summer), by many bankruptcy barristers (and their families), as they simultaneously attended the Norton Bankruptcy Law Institutes at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  The Trumpeter pairs are often seen as isolated pairs, each “owning” its own lake, yet these swans also congregate in gregarious flocks, especially in the Red Rock Lakes area.

[Canadians, especially in British Columbia and Alberta, have also been intensively involved in serious efforts to conserve Canada’s population of Trumpeter Swans, for more than 65 years – but this birding report mostly notices and focuses on the Trumpeter conservation efforts in the United States.]

Has FDR’s Executive Order 7023 been followed by conservation and restoration success, for the Trumpeter Swan?   The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website reports a happy “yes”:

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) by Kent Nickel

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) by Kent Nickel

In 1932, fewer than 70 trumpeters were known to exist worldwide, at a location near Yellowstone National Park.  This led to the establishment of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1935.  Red Rock Lakes is located in Montana’s Centennial Valley and is part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.  Nearly half of the known trumpeter swans in 1932 were found in this area.  Warm springs provide year-round open waters where swans find food and cover even in the coldest weather.  Today, estimates show about 46,225 trumpeter swans reside in North America, including some 26,790 in the Pacific Coast population (Alaska, Yukon, and NW British Columbia) which winter on the Pacific Coast; 8,950 in Canada; about 9,809 in the Midwest; and about 487 in the tri-state area of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana (including the Red Rock Lakes refuge flock).”   [Quoting from http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Red_Rock_Lakes/about.html ]

Sounds like a winner to me  —   from less than 70 to more than 46,000!

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) cygnets ©USFWS

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) cygnets ©USFWS

However, if only the wildlife conservation principle of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 (i.e., you can take the eggs and nestlings, but not the adult mother birds) had been practiced in North America, during the past 2 or 3 centuries, the continent’s Trumpeter Swan population would never have gotten so close to extinction.  Moses not only mandated restrictions on excessively hunting avian wildlife (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), Moses also banned imprudent deforestation (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).   Of course, creation conservation laws are always balanced to value human life over nonhuman life forms (Matthew 6:26-30; Psalm 8; Jonah 4:8-11).  Yet the promulgated priority of stewardly usage of God’s creation – because all of creation is God’s property, ultimately, not ours! — traces all the way back to Creation Week, because even Adam was put into Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15), and Noah managed the greatest biodiversity protection project ever (Genesis chapters 6-9).

Humans have been eating domesticated birds, such as chicken and turkey, ever since Noah’s family disembarked the Ark (Genesis 9:3).  People who raise domesticated fowl (such as chickens) are careful to preserve enough breeders so that they don’t eat up all of their fowl.  [This illustrates the old adage about balancing give and take: if your input exceeds your output, your upkeep is your downfall!]  Accordingly, chicken farmers avoid eating all of their chickens  — it’s important to protect the reproductive success of your chickens if you want poultry eggs and/or chicken meat to eat, on a continuing basis!  But what about wild birds?  The private ownership principle that guides common sense, in raising chickens and other domesticated fowl, doesn’t work so well with wild birds (especially migratory birds), because they are not privately “owned” – so they are a “public” resource vulnerable to irresponsible “tragedy-of-the-commons” depletion.

And most swans are wild, so greedy over-hunting can endanger their population success.

Providentially, the eating of wild birds, such as wild swans, was restricted under Mosaic law, for good reason  —  wild bird populations can be extinguished if one generation of hunters gets too greedy.

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) on nest ©USFWS

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) on nest ©USFWS

If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way, in any tree, or upon the ground, whether they be young one [i.e., nestling infant birds], or eggs [i.e., not-yet-hatched baby birds], and the mother [’em is the usual Hebrew noun for “mother”] sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.  But you shall surely send forth the mother, and take the young [literally “children”] for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong days.  Deuteronomy 22:6-7

This is a simple law of predator-prey dynamics:  if the predator population (i.e., the “eaters”) consume too many of the prey population (i.e., the “eatees”), the result is bad for both populations, because the prey population experiences negative population growth, a trend that can lead to its reproductive failure (and extirpation) if the excessive predation continues unabated.

Each generation of humans, therefore, needs to exercise wise stewardship of Earth’s food resources, so that adequate food resources will be available of posterity (i.e., later generations).  When greed leads to over-hunting, the foreseeable consequence is bad for both the birds (whose population declines, generationally) and the humans (whose food resources decline, generationally).

Sad to say, mankind’s track record for respecting and heeding God’s Word, as it teaches us to be godly stewards of His creation (and to use it in ways that glorify Him, its rightful and only true Owner), all-too-often misses the mark (Romans 3:23).

What slow learners we all-too-often are!   [For Genesis-based ecology perspectives, for this fallen “groaning” world, see http://www.icr.org/article/misreading-earths-groanings-why-evolutionists/ and  http://www.icr.org/article/7486/ and  http://www.icr.org/article/genesis-science-practical-not-just/  and  http://www.icr.org/article/why-we-want-go-home/ .]

Meanwhile, may God have mercy on the people of America, by restoring to us a serious and reverent respect for the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), that He has given us in the Holy Bible, His holy Word.  Only then, as we heartily heed His Word, will we properly appreciate and rightly treat His creation, including the Trumpeter Swan.  And, only then, will we properly revere and appreciate Him as our Creator (and Redeemer).  And living life responsibly on His earth, with that kind of reverence, would be far better than the fanciest feather in anyone’s cap!

by James J. S. Johnson

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