Reading Audubon in the Light of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s “Clarification”

Audubon's Birds of America cover

I just happened upon the current administration’s “clarification” of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act about the same time my husband handed me an old book buried in our bookcase, the 1950 Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. There was no grand public announcement by the administration on a decision made back in 2018, (you can read about it yourself because I can’t anymore ), in which the “incidental” death of a dozen (or a million) birds is A- okay.

At the same time, my daughter, a senior educator for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), had just gotten word that the transfer to ACES of a once broken-winged golden eagle rescued near the National Sand Dunes

by the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation center in Del Norte, Colorado was a “go.” She would drive the truck to Minturn to pick up the bird, the hand-off approved under the auspices of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

No “clarification” needed.

The Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America was Macmillan’s effort to give “everyman” access to at least a truncated version of Audubon’s original 435 illustrations collected in the early 1800’s in double elephant folios. I am thinking about this now because amidst the charming forewarnings in the introduction to the book, such as “all the mythical species have been omitted” in this Audubon edition,  Ludlow Griscom, a pioneering ornithologist, addresses the destruction of habitat that was happening seventy years ago and accounted for the loss of birds far beyond the then public perception of the numbers shot down by hunters and target shooters and small boys “popping away at the birds on the lawn.”

Rather than succumb to the pessimism of the day, Griscom sought to rally his readers over conservation efforts such as the creation of federal and state parks and a “great chain of federal wildlife refuges.” Griscom was a pioneer who shifted ornithology from the study of dead birds to binocular observations. He reminds his readers of what could happen when “every nature lover” and “every bird watcher” keeps tally of the birds in their own backyards and contributes data that could lead to better conservation practices and laws.

Yesterday’s backyard bird watchers and nature lovers . And today’s non-profits.

Despite the news that our administration will quietly suggest that the disruption of nesting grounds, in the form of a bridge and tunnel, for 25,000 migrating sea birds is “incidental” and, therefore, A-Okay, I’ll continue Griscom’s rally: there are still those who care, those that still follow the heart and soul of legislation created in word and spirit to perpetuate in our skies wing and song and cry.

ACES lost its much beloved thirty-some year-old golden eagle just this past year, much to the despair of the whole Roaring Fork community. The eagle had been a successful educational ambassador to thousands of children over the years, not only because it was a living ambassador, but because it possessed a rarity of calm that allowed the kids the chance to see the golden eagle up close.

“The kids liked to squawk at it,” my daughter said, “to say ‘it’s pretty,’ to ask its name,” (which it had none in order to reinforce the eagle’s status as a wild animal, not a pet).

ACES Beloved Golden Eagle of 30 years

When Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation heard of the death of ACE’s golden eagle, it offered the eagle it had managed to repair, except for the bird’s desiccated flight feathers, necessitating life-long protective care. Acting under the watchful eye and good graces of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, my daughter loaded a wooden box with air holes into her truck in a small town in Colorado. And because two organizations carefully adhered to a protection act passed in 1940 to prevent the needless and unlawful harm or killing of even one eagle, a law generations of us have proudly grown up with, a golden eagle waiting in the half-dark of that box reached its new “mew,” its new home, where a rabbit and open skies beyond the wire mesh and a thousand new children awaited it.

The book I hold in my hands is a beautiful book, hard-bound in a crosshatch pattern of feathers (why do I have a Kindle?), its inside cover bearing the faint small-boy penciling of my husband’s name. In this popular edition, Audubon’s golden eagle tilts upward, open-beaked, carrying a white hare in its talons over rock and sea. “Wandering in winter to sea level,” the caption reads.

Audubon’s picture seems to capture the grand wilderness in the bird,  but I would be remiss not to mention that Audubon himself was responsible for the death of thousands of birds, using wires and threads to tie the bodies of the birds he killed into “life-like” positions for his drawings, a fate, I’m sad to say, that the golden eagle he drew did not escape.

Shocking? Yes. Barbaric?

Almost as much as the flimflamming of a word.

Golden Eagle Illustration from Audubon's Birds of America

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