By Frances Lamberts
In the “City-Lights” movie by Charles Chaplin, the tramp rescues a suicidal millionaire from deliberate drowning. To prevent further self-harm, he comforts him with these words of promise: “Tomorrow, the birds will sing.”
When, after the tragedy of losing both his mother and young wife, within hours of each other on Valentines Day (1884), Theodore Roosevelt moved to the western territories, he found strength and consolation in the natural world. In books describing this time, he praised “the breath of the evergreen forest [and] all the innumerable sights and sounds of the wilderness.” Many descriptions of birds and their song tell of the joy and comfort their presence meant for him in that difficult time.
Here from “Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail”: “The Missouri skylark sings while soaring above the great plateaus; the lark-bunting, in its livery of black, has rich, full notes it sings on the wind and the sweet-voiced lark-finch also utters its sounds in the air.” With bluebirds, flickers, towhees and many more species, “the thickets and groves around the ranch house are loud with bird music” in June. Thrashers sing all night and “the bell-like, silvery songs of the shy wood thrushes chime in.” Then, “the poor-wills begin to utter their boding call at night-fall [and] the little owls, too, call to each other with tremulous, quavering voices throughout the livelong night.”
Soon thereafter, bird numbers were found in serious decline, due to large-scale millinery trade in hats with songbird feathers. By the late 1800s, birds of all species were being killed at an annual rate of more than five million for this purpose. Following the formation of the Audubon Society, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it unlawful since 1918, to “take,” kill or sell migratory birds without waiver or permit. More than a thousand native bird species are protected under it.
Within the first year of the Trump administration, a former adviser to the oil-rich Koch Brothers enterprise, appointed to the Interior Department as its chief lawyer, reinterpreted the protective mission of this conservation law. It is to be held applicable only if bird kills are intentional; large-scale bird mortality, as can result in routine industrial operations or accidents, will no longer be considered a violation.
Interior Department officials from all previous administrations back to President Nixon had urged the administration to abandon this new, ill-considered interpretation of the MBTA. “It’s intent,” they stated, “and your obligation in enforcing it, is to conserve migratory bird populations.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump should abandon this rulemaking. It would further decimate the natural pollinator – and insect-control agents we have in the birds, and the songsters which, for millions of Americans, mean hope and joy in annual renewal of the seasons, and comfort for the heart in difficult times.