Bird Watching in the USA - Sustainable Tourism & Conservation Laws

Observing and classifying wild birds is a common outdoor recreational activity in the United States. More than 9,000 land bird species are distributed among six distinct zoogeographical regions. Approximately 10% of these species are found in the Neartic region which comprises Greenland and North America.

The fact that the United States has a large population of birds despite ecological challenges is due in part to legislation designed to halt the decimation of these valuable natural resources. Popular birding destinations can be found across the country from Vermont to the Rio Grande Valley allowing ecotourism to provide much-needed boosts to local economic situation. Bird watching enthusiasts must familiarize themselves with state and local laws that govern their activities to avoid fines and possible felony charges.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA) is an agreement between the U.S. and Canada that protects more than 800 species of migratory birds including waterfowl. In the United States it is illegal to move, destroy or disturb the nests or eggs of wild birds or the birds themselves. Certain birds of prey and non-native species, such as the common house sparrow, are not protected by the MBTA.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which was signed in 1940, prohibits the merchandising or possession of eagles and their parts. The law limits the possession of eagle feathers to Native American tribal members. Violations can result in stiff penalties for lawbreakers. In some areas it is against the law to broadcast bird calls to attract various species when birding, particularly in national parks.

The bird population of the Neartic region is both rich and diverse; opportunities abound for bird watching enthusiasts to observe these unique creatures in their natural habitats. Standard bird watching equipment includes binoculars, a proper field guide, notepad and pen. Field guides provide useful information regarding which birds are found in a particular region, detailed photographs and/or drawings and identification techniques.

Some land bird species are attracted to fields and grasslands for nesting purposes while others prefer marshy areas or forest woodlands. Birds can be attracted to properly maintained backyard birdhouses and may return year after year. Whether birds live in the wild or in a suburban backyard, each species plays an important role in its ecological community. A thriving bird population may indicate a healthy and balanced local environment. Conversely, an imbalanced ecological system can be the result of decimated bird populations.

Occasionally, birdwatchers find injured or abandoned wild birds and want to help. Such cases require the assistance of trained rehabilitators who are licensed to care for injured wildlife. Concerned birders should contact a veterinary or wildlife rehabilitation facility for advice.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has linked up with various conservation consortia to maintain nesting habitats for a variety of birds. Grants provided through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act have facilitated the creation of a number of programs to protect and manage bird populations and their habitats as well as funding research and community outreach.

Bird watching is an enjoyable pastime that must be done responsibly. In some areas, the broadcasting of bird calls to attract certain species is prohibited and such prohibitions are strictly enforced in national parks. Repeatedly disturbing birds can cause them to abandon nesting areas or leave their young exposed to predators, thus negatively impacting bird populations and upsetting the ecosystem.

Responsible bird watching ensures that the impact on wildlife habitats visited is minimal and preserves these natural resources for the enjoyment of generations to come.