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From the Serial Set: Birds and the Law

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“The general barrenness of the country lying along our route proved a considerable obstacle to the pursuit of my favorite branch, Ornithology; though among the few species obtained some are new, and most of them rare, and concerning whose habits little was previously known.” ) – Lieutenant John G. Parke (H. Exec. Doc. 91 pt. 10, 33d Cong., 2d Sess. at 7 (1854) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 800.)

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 implemented the terms agreed upon in the convention signed by the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) in 1916. The treaty established “close seasons,” or terms during which it was prohibited to “hunt, take, capture, kill…, possess, sell, purchase, [etc.]” certain migratory bird species. (40 Stat. 755) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a page where links to the lists of protected bird species are available.

An important exception made to this law is that First Peoples “may take at any season auks, auklets, guillemots, murres and puffins, and their eggs, for food and their skins for clothing.” (Protection of Migratory Birds, 1916, 39 Stat. 1702; T.S. 628, at 377.)

An earlier law, passed May 7, 1894, was “An Act to protect the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, and to punish crimes in said park, and for other purposes.” The only exception to this law was the necessity to intervene “to prevent [animals] from destroying human life or inflicting an injury.” (28 Stat. 73.)

Reports of explorations and surveys published in the United States Congressional Serial Set contain colorful illustrations of birds across the world. The Digital Resources team especially enjoyed discovering color illustrations of birds while preparing these volumes for digitization. Here are some of my favorites:

The U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition reports are the key source of these illustrations. Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss, founder of the United States Naval Observatory, is the author of the report, “The U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere during the Years 1849-50-51-52,” which was published in six volumes.

Photo of title page of U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere report.
Title page of Volume I of U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere – Chile. (H. Exec. Doc. 91 pt. 10, 33d Cong., 2d Sess. at 1 (1854) vol. 800)

In the years 1853-1856, the Secretary of War directed surveys of the area now known as the western United States, from the “Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean,” in preparation for designing the railway infrastructure. Many of the documents included in this report recorded the wildlife encountered along the way – along with lithographs and descriptions. The following are two examples:

We’re delighted to continue sharing the visual value of the Serial Set reports, giving our readers a glimpse of different aspects of the United States over time. We look forward to sharing more illustrations as the digitization process continues!

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