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The birds have been helping us through this pandemic. Let’s help them

Illinois should restore protections for migratory birds from predictable killings that were eliminated by the federal government.

A ruby-crowned kinglet visits a branch along the Great March Trail in Beverly Shores. It is one of the bird species that migrates through the Chicago area.
Joan Dittmann~For Sun-Times Media

During the COVID-19 pandemic, birds enriched the lives of many Illinoisans who saw them out their windows or when going for a walk

Now Illinois should do something to help the birds.

Last month, Virginia became the first state to restore protections for migratory birds from unintended but predictable killings resulting from human activities. Such so-called “incidental take” will be banned under a regulation approved by the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources.

Illinois should adopt a similar rule.

Migratory birds long were protected from incidental take by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which encouraged such commonsense measures as using red lights on communication towers, screening off toxic waste pits, marking power lines to reduce collisions and ensuring wind turbines are not placed directly in the paths of migrating birds. Bird deaths caused in ways for which there is not always a straightforward solution, such as flying into windows, are not considered incidental take.

But in 2017, the Trump administration reinterpreted the law to remove the birds’ protections.

That was bad news for birds. Large numbers of birds die each year from collisions with human structures, pesticide poisoning, loss of habitat and attacks by cats. In 2019, it was reported North America has lost a quarter of its bird population in the previous half century, or about 3 billion birds. Birds need protection when there is a reasonable way to do it.

The Biden administration is working to undo Trump’s handiwork by delaying its implementation. Environmental groups and several states have gone to court to toss it out altogether in a case that has been stayed until May 14. However, there’s no guarantee the judge will invalidate the Trump administration’s interpretation of the law. Congress should step in and rewrite the law to make it clear the Trump administration’s interpretation was wrong, but that would be a lengthy process.

Meanwhile, Illinois, like Virginia, should enact its own rules to restore protections for birds. Illinois law now protects endangered birds from incidental take but it should be expanded to cover all migratory birds. The state is home to such important migration routes as the Mississippi Flyway, the Illinois River and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Backyard birds also could benefit from the protections. They might fly into unmarked power lines, too.

“If states can act more quickly, the birds win,” Joel Merriman, bird-smart wind energy campaign director for the American Bird Conservancy, told us.

Chicago has been a bird-friendly city, implementing a series of programs to protect avian visitors, such as its Lights Out program, which encourages the owners and managers of tall buildings to turn off or dim their decorative lights during migration times to keep birds from flying into the buildings. Illinois should follow Chicago’s lead in avian welfare by protecting all migratory birds from predictable deaths. Should Illinois do so, birds would be protected in Illinois no matter what the federal government does in the future.

The next time you spot a ruby-crowned kinglet or a great crested flycatcher, you will be glad Illinois acted.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.