A Look Back: 125 Years and More of Assaults on Birds, and Solutions by Conservationists — Connecticut State of the Birds 2022
The Connecticut Audubon Society, which celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2023, was founded in 1898 as part of a nationwide movement to end the feather trade.
President Theodore Roosevelt created the first Natioal Wildlife Refuge, in Florida. The fish and wildlife refuge system has since grown to encompass 568 refuges, including three that are all or partly in Connecticut.
The Connecticut Audubon Society created Birdcraft Sanctuary, following the creation of a bird sanctuary in Meriden, New Hampshire. They are the earliest known private bird sanctuaries. Birdcraft was named a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 provided the first broad-based protection from harm for songbirds and other non-game birds. It was amended in 1972 to include raptors.
The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 required waterfowl hunters to buy “duck stamps,” with the funds earmarked for wetlands conservation and waterfowl protection.
Congress passed the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals in the environment. It is generally regarded as the inspiration for the modern environmental movement.
The United States banned the use of DDT. Over several decades and much restoration work, the Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans and other species affected by DDT made a full recovery.
The Endangered Species Act became law.
A report in the journal Science showed that since 1970, the number of birds in North America has fallen by about 30 percent. Many of the organizations represented by the authors of the report are collaborating on a plan that they hope will serve as a blueprint for restoring bird life.
Introduction to the 2022 Connecticut State of the Birds report
In a sense, they came here to kill birds.
The region’s first civic boosters were visitors from England and the Netherlands who sent reports back to Europe—come-ons, really—in the early 1600s. Vast forests, limitless fish.
And birds darkening the skies, descending on meadows, crowding the bays, and huddling in great flocks along the beaches.
Birds so unwary that when you shot into a flock, they didn’t fly away. In New England, the killing was relentless. “All our hunting, fishing and fowling is entirely gone,” a group of Mohegans mourned in a petition to the General Assembly in Hartford in 1789.
The killing spread as the nation grew. Conservationists have been trying to catch up ever since—to the devastation left by market hunters, by plume hunters, by misguided sworn enemies of hawks, by pesticide producers, by road builders, by wetlands drainers, by land developers.
Birds were shot and sold in markets for food. “Audubon once reported a flight of ‘millions’ of golden plover,” wrote Peter Matthiessen, in The Wind Birds, “of which some 48,000 were killed in a single day. The golden plover was thought to have been even more numerous than the Eskimo curlew, whose multitudes have been compared to the great flights of the passenger pigeon.”
Birds were killed for feathers to bedeck women’s hats. Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in Florida suffered the worst. Audubon Magazine reported in 1955: “ …in the nesting season of 1892, just one of the many ‘feather merchants’ in Jacksonville shipped 130,000 bird ‘scalps’ (skins with the feathers on) to New York for the millinery trade!”
Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History walked along Manhattan’s 14th Street in 1886 for a macabre birding expedition. “There, notebook in hand, I recorded … the names of birds which, usually entire, were seen on the hats of passing women.” His list? Forty species, including Sanderling, Greater Yellowlegs, and Green Heron.
Waterfowl vanished in the 1930s when drought in the Great Plains followed six decades of poor farming practices. Prairie pothole breeding areas dried up—and the ducks and geese that had used them for 12 millennia became scarce. Topsoil blew away in the Dust Bowl.
Raptors were vermin. The first curator of Birdcraft Sanctuary in Fairfield wanted to kill accipiters: he thought they were killing songbirds at this new songbird sanctuary. The first protectors of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania were appalled by the number of spent shells littering the ground after years during which the north winds of autumn meant hawk-killing season.
When raptor numbers recovered, the killing resumed indirectly. Sprayed in wetlands and along coasts to control mosquitoes, DDT worked its way up the food chain to Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons, preventing them from laying eggs with sufficient calcium to withstand their own weight during incubation. Those three species and others soon seemed to be facing extinction.
Wetlands were drained and filled. New highways led to new suburbs built on what had been forests and meadows.
And birds became even scarcer. In 2019, a team of ornithologists demonstrated in the journal Science that there were about three billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970. Thirty percent of the North American avifauna had disappeared.
10.3 billion birds in 1970.
7.3 billion birds now.
“You don’t publish a paper like that and then go back to your day job doing science,” said Peter P. Marra, Ph.D., one of the Science report authors and the director of Earth Commons, Georgetown University’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability. “You start scratching your head and thinking what do we do to help these species recover. We came to the conclusion that conservation and the way we’re doing it, it’s not enough. It’s not working. And we need to reimagine what we’re doing for bird conservation.”
In 2023, the Connecticut Audubon Society will celebrate its 125th anniversary. It coincides with the newest and biggest challenge—climate change. In this Connecticut State of the Birds report, we look at the conservation history of five groups of birds, emphasizing their status now, with a look toward a hard-to-predict future. For our recommendations, see page 21 of this report.
Suffice it to say, climate change is a challenge we can’t avoid. No statewide conservation organization or its members can do it all. But success might be measured in local progress that adds up to big achievements.