The Political Hatching of the Migratory Bird Treaty

July 1, 2024

A review by M. Ralph Browning

A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington: Senator George P. McLean, Birdman of the Senate, by Will McLean Greeley

RIT Press, 2023

350 pages, paperback

Will McLean Greeley’s biography, A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington: Senator George P. McLean, Birdman of the Senate, on his great-great uncle George Payne McLean is quite unlike Mark Twain’s satire about a different Connecticut Yankee. This work contains a plethora of footnoted accounts documenting the life and times of McLean, who ultimately became the governor of Connecticut and finally a U.S. senator. Part of the chronicling of McLean’s political career were his efforts to pass the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). To birders, conservationists, and to everyone really, McLean’s greatest achievement was the passage of the MBTA. Without the treaty, we all might be eating fast-food thrushes, with or without hummingbird fries.

From most of the biography, we learn that McLean (1857–1932) traversed a beginning that evolved from journalism to law school and that led to a public service career as a representative and then senator in Connecticut, a U.S. district attorney, the governor of Connecticut, and a finally a U.S. senator. Politically, McLean was a Republican as defined in the early twentieth century. Though he considered himself an ardent progressive, McLean’s voting record was not always in agreement with his own label. For example, he opposed women’s right to vote, but Greeley almost apologetically seems to blame the politician’s wife for his lack of progressiveness. Oddly, she and other women reportedly were not in favor of women having this right. Politically, McLean also did not always lean in a predictable direction. For example, he talked about corporate power and inequality but opposed tightening antitrust laws. He was against lynching but used disparaging names for certain people.

Though readers will not find mention of birds until briefly on page 148 and reference to the MBTA until page 170, it is by now apparent that McLean’s political abilities, savvy, wherewithal, and perseverance were what finally drove the treaty to reality. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the secretary of the interior.” As with most political issues, people on the Hill are slow to act unless under the threat of bodily harm. So, when McLean came on board as a U.S. senator in 1911, he first pushed for stronger hunting laws. In 1912, the senator from Connecticut focused his energy on the protection of migratory birds. The next year, he joined forces with John Wingate Weeks, a fellow senator from Massachusetts. A measure in 1913 to protect migratory birds seemed promising, but it still had to be signed off and voted on by not just the House of Representatives and the Senate but by the Supreme Court regarding constitutionality of the act, and it needed the approval of the sitting president. The biographer provides us with, dare I say, an exciting story nicely presented in 25 pages in chapter eight. During the approximately seven years from 1911 to the passage of the 1918 act, migratory birds remained fodder for those in the process of commercial management of bird feathers, their meat, and their eggs. How many birds succumbed to the hand of man during those seven years is probably phenomenal. Also phenomenal is the length of time the government took to ratify the MBTA. The biographer did not mention Louis Marshall, who was successful in convincing the Supreme Court to uphold the treaty as constitutional.

Subsequent chapters continue with McLean’s remaining political career and his words and wishes. Other measures, bills, or merely discussion on conservation issues apparently never occurred in McLean’s remaining years in office from 1918 to 1929. He did will a 3,200-acre game refuge in Connecticut but otherwise took little to no credit for the passage of the MBTA. During his senatorial watch, numerous national wildlife refuges and a few national parks and monuments were established. Although busy, McLean missed about 40 percent of roll calls to vote in the Senate; he presumably would have been in favor of protecting habitat. Barely mentioned by Greeley is that Senator McLean served as chairman of the committee on forest reservations and game protection. The position, which was for two Congresses, might have been an opportunity to furthgiller conservation agendas, though Greeley did not say so.

Did McLean favor the additional public lands, the national refuges and parks, established during his watch? What he contributed while chairing the congressional committees are but a few questions unanswered. After all, the title states McLean is “The Birdman.” Why? Other than the MBTA that McLean and Weeks so successfully drove to law, readers are left wondering. Was McLean a birder? What kinds of birds most attracted his interest? Was his disdain for overhunting, his favor of bag limits, and his brief encounters with local and national conservationists like Mabel O. Wright and friend Theodore Roosevelt the reason for the monicker “Birdman of the Senate”? Roughly eight percent of the biography points to these answers. The remaining pages mostly dwell on the life of an early twentieth-century politician. Thanks to Will Greeley, readers have the opportunity to have a detailed look into a politician’s life, witness the slow grinding wheel that was (is) government, and gain an understanding about the passage of the MBTA.

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M. Ralph Browning is a retiree of the 1885 Biological Survey at the Division of Birds in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While caretaking the collection with others, he pursued taxonomic issues, with a focus on species occurring in the Pacific Northwest. Living in Oregon with his friend and life partner of over seven decades, he continues to write about birds.