Migratory Bird Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Migratory Bird Act gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the hunting seasons of migratory game and insect-eating birds.

Summary of Event

On March 4, 1913, the U.S. Congress passed and President William Howard Taft signed the Migratory Bird Act, which gave the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the hunting seasons of a wide range of bird species. The law, also known as the Weeks-McLean Act, placed under U.S. protection all migratory game and insectivorous birds with northern or southern migration paths that passed through any U.S. state or territory. Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Conservation;wildlife Migratory Bird Act (1913) Hunting;regulation Weeks-McLean Act (1913)[Weeks Maclean Act] [kw]Migratory Bird Act (Mar. 4, 1913) [kw]Bird Act, Migratory (Mar. 4, 1913) [kw]Act, Migratory Bird (Mar. 4, 1913) Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Conservation;wildlife Migratory Bird Act (1913) Hunting;regulation Weeks-McLean Act (1913)[Weeks Maclean Act] [g]United States;Mar. 4, 1913: Migratory Bird Act[03380] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 4, 1913: Migratory Bird Act[03380] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 4, 1913: Migratory Bird Act[03380] Weeks, John Wingate McLean, George Payne Lacey, John F. Grinnell, George Bird

The passage of the Migratory Bird Act was an important step in bird protection in the United States. Although individual states had laws preventing the excessive hunting of resident bird species, these laws did not protect birds that migrated from the Canadian Arctic to the American Gulf coast. The Weeks-McLean Act extended federal protection to these species. Events in the late 1800’s led to a changing public view of the need for bird protection. The slaughter of birds in their nesting grounds had severely depleted the populations of several species. When the birds’ plight was brought to the public’s attention through the cooperation of many organizations, widespread support grew for a proposed law that would protect migratory birds.

The expansion of the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century onward had adverse impacts on the nation’s wildlife. Two groups with sometimes diverging interests, outdoor sporting enthusiasts and nature lovers, became aware of these impacts and came together to help enact laws to protect birds and other American wildlife. Sportsmen realized that uncontrolled hunting was depleting many species, and as a result many joined organizations that worked to promote the passage of legislation to protect game birds and animals. Nature lovers worked to protect and preserve nature and wildlife for their own sakes.

George Bird Grinnell, a sportsman and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, supported efforts to protect wildlife from excessive hunting. Initially concerned only with game species, he advocated the enforcement of existing hunting laws as a solution to wildlife depletion. In 1886, Grinnell expanded his concerns, founding the Audubon Society for the protection of nongame species, a category of wildlife previously ignored. Although the organization was extremely popular, Grinnell discontinued it three years later because of the increasing demands placed on him by his work on Forest and Stream. The effort to protect nongame species prompted the formation of other groups, however, many of which eventually joined together to form the National Association of Audubon Societies in 1905. Grinnell continued to be influential in efforts to increase bird protection.

In the first years of the twentieth century, responsibility for bird protection in the United States rested mainly with a scientific group, the American Ornithologists’ Union American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). The main purposes of the AOU, which was founded in 1883, were to identify and to classify bird species. The AOU supported state laws that prohibited the killing of certain endangered birds, but it had no enforcement power.

Public awareness of the need to protect wildlife increased with the dramatic declines of the passenger pigeon and the bison caused by large-scale commercial hunting. A fashion craze of the late nineteenth century helped to galvanize support for bird protection when hundreds of thousands of nongame birds were destroyed to satisfy the demand for feathered hats. Hardest hit was the egret, the breeding plumage of which was highly valued. Many nesting colonies were destroyed when hunters invaded them and killed adult birds, leaving the young to die.

Sportsmen’s groups and state-level Audubon Societies Audubon Societies helped to gain support for the passage of the first federal legislation for bird protection, the Lacey Act of 1900. Lacey Act (1900) Sponsored by Representative John F. Lacey of Iowa, the law forbade the interstate shipment of any birds killed in violation of state laws. Although the Lacey Act’s application was limited to species already protected by individual states, it placed the authority and enforcement power of the federal government behind the bird-protection movement for the first time. Many protected songbirds were being killed and sold across state lines as game birds; other species were being hunted as sources of hat feathers. The Lacey Act, when enforced, stopped these practices.

Under the Lacey Act, the Bureau of Biological Survey Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S. in the U.S. Department of Agriculture was responsible for enforcing the law, but Congress did not provide funding for a federal police force. The bureau had to rely on the cooperation of states, conservation groups, and commercial interests to protect bird species. Sportsmen and nature lovers thus continued to fight for federal protection of migratory birds.

In 1912, Representative John Wingate Weeks of Massachusetts and Senator George Payne McLean of Connecticut proposed a bill in Congress to regulate migratory birds on the grounds that migration of waterfowl across state boundaries constitutes interstate commerce. Because the bill extended federal powers, it was strongly opposed by members of Congress from the South and West as a violation of states’ rights. Although widespread public support existed for bird protection, Congress would not act on the bill. Toward the end of the congressional session in March, 1913, however, the migratory bird legislation was attached as a rider to an agricultural appropriations bill. Concealed in this manner, it passed both houses of Congress, and President Taft signed it into law on March 4, 1913, during the last hours of his administration.

With the passage of the Weeks-McLean Act, the secretary of agriculture authorized the Biological Survey to draft suitable regulations prescribing and fixing hunting seasons. The regulations clearly defined the species considered to be migratory game and insectivorous birds. The regulations also provided a detailed schedule of closed hunting seasons on these birds for various zones throughout the United States. Grinnell and Lacey were among those appointed to an advisory board to assist the secretary of agriculture in making the law effective. The regulations went into effect on October 1, 1913.

The Weeks-McLean Act was the most sweeping action the U.S. government had taken up to that time for the protection of wildlife, but the law’s usefulness was hampered by the failure of Congress to provide sufficient enforcement funding. In 1914, the act was dealt a greater blow by the decision in a federal court case in Arkansas. An individual had killed birds in violation of the Weeks-McLean Act and was indicted for the offense, but the federal judge in the case rendered an opinion adverse to the law. He stated that no provision of the U.S. Constitution allowed Congress to claim that migratory birds were the property of the U.S. government. In the judge’s opinion, attempts to regulate the shooting of these birds were unconstitutional. This legal decision effectively negated the Migratory Bird Act.

In the meantime, a bird-protection treaty was being negotiated between the United States and Canada. Supporters of the Weeks-McLean Act actively urged passage of the treaty, and the U.S. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) In 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Missouri v. Holland case, upheld the constitutionality of the new congressional statute under the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which stipulates that treaties are the law of the land, and thus congressional acts giving effect to treaties take precedence over any state laws to the contrary. The treaty also gave the Biological Survey international responsibilities in protecting and regulating the hunting of migratory birds.

Even though the Weeks-McLean Act itself was unsuccessful in protecting bird species, the massive public support for the law was an important factor in the passage of the treaty. In addition, the regulations of the bird law formed the basis for the protection of migratory and insectivorous birds under the international treaty.


The Migratory Bird Act came at a time of increasing public concern in the United States regarding the near extermination of various bird species through overhunting. Since the mid-nineteenth century, state governments had enacted various laws to protect and preserve game species, but these laws were not uniform. A bird species protected in one state was not necessarily protected in another. The Lacey Act of 1900 was the U.S. government’s first attempt to provide federal protection to game species. The act ended market hunting and interstate shipment of wildlife or wildlife products taken in violation of state laws. The Lacey Act protected only species that were already protected by state laws, however.

By the late 1800’s, both sportsmen and ornithologists had come to realize that the greatest threat to game species was posed by commercial hunters, who were rapidly depleting some species and exhausting the surpluses of others. The Lacey Act had helped to lay the foundations for a wildlife protection policy, but the Biological Survey, charged with enforcing protection laws, was hampered by lack of funding. An effective policy could come about only with a change in public attitudes toward wildlife protection.

Public concern for game and nongame bird species increased in the early twentieth century. Many state groups based on the model of George Grinnell’s Audubon Society came into existence. In 1905, many state groups joined together to form the National Association of Audubon Societies, later called the National Audubon Society. National Audubon Society The association worked diligently to support legislation for the protection of wild birds and animals.

The mass destruction of the passenger pigeon population by commercial hunting did much to help change public attitudes. Extinction;passenger pigeon Passenger pigeons These birds were killed by the millions. Commercial hunters descended on breeding grounds covering up to forty-five square miles and slaughtered so many birds that the birds’ bodies filled railroad freight cars. Once numbering in the hundreds of millions, the passenger pigeon was scarce by the 1880’s. The species became extinct in 1914, when the last bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Less publicized was the destruction of nongame birds, such as warblers, terns, and egrets. The feathered-hat craze of the late 1800’s resulted in the mass slaughter of these birds for their feathers.

These events and the actions of sportsmen’s groups and the Audubon Society helped change attitudes toward bird protection. Many Americans came to realize that they did not have the right to exploit natural resources without regard for future needs. Widespread public support was an important factor in the passage of the Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The Weeks-McLean Act formed the basis for future wildlife protection policy in the United States. The law’s regulations recognized the importance of species other than game birds. The protection of insectivorous birds—songbirds and other perching birds that feed either entirely or chiefly on insects—would indirectly protect farmers, as many of the insects eaten by these birds are destructive to crops and fruit trees.

The act also established the Bureau of Biological Survey as a federal agency empowered to enforce its regulations. With the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, this agency became part of early international efforts to protect bird and other wildlife species. The Biological Survey would eventually become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a wider range of responsibilities.

The regulations written for the Weeks-McLean Act recognized the importance of protecting birds in their nesting grounds: Species could not reproduce adequately if breeding colonies were destroyed by hunters. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 later expanded this concept to include the protection of wildlife habitats.

The controversy over the constitutionality of the Weeks-McLean Act nullified its enforcement, but the law was nevertheless an important step toward the protection of birds across the United States. The widespread support for this law and the subsequent bird-protection treaty with Canada formed the beginnings of U.S. wildlife protection and conservation policy. Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Conservation;wildlife Migratory Bird Act (1913) Hunting;regulation Weeks-McLean Act (1913)[Weeks Maclean Act]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Wells W. “Saving the Ducks and Geese.” National Geographic, March, 1913, 360-380. Discusses migration routes and breeding areas of several North American waterfowl species. Also examines the reasons for bird-protection laws and the ways in which the Weeks-McLean Act was expected to help protect birds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlap, Thomas R. Saving America’s Wildlife. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Historical treatment of wildlife conservation in the United States addresses changing concepts regarding endangered species and wildlife conservation. Chapters 1 through 3 deal with the people, ideas, and events leading to the Lacey Act and the Weeks-McLean Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. A general history of the people and events of the American conservation movement. Chapter 5 deals with wildlife protection in the early 1900’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness. Begins with the earliest days of European contact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, T. G. “Weeks-McLean Law.” Bird Lore, March, 1913, 137-138. Outlines how widespread popular support led to the passage of the Weeks-McLean Act. Includes the full text of the federal law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reiger, John F. American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. 3d ed. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. History of the nineteenth century pioneers of wildlife conservation focuses on the attempts of numerous sportsmen to organize support for the protection of wildlife. Covers people and events up to the Lacey Act of 1900. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schorger, W. A. The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. 1973. Reprint. Caldwell, N.J.: Blackburn Press, 2004. Well-researched and well-documented account explains clearly how a species can be brought to the brink of extinction.

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Categories: History