Constable: Suburban birder honked off by plans to change conservation law

 
 
Updated 8/11/2018 4:29 PM
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  • One of the reasons Bob Montgomery is still short of his goal to see 700 species of birds is he spent most summers helping to preserve birds in his career as a wildlife biologist, much working with Canada geese.

      One of the reasons Bob Montgomery is still short of his goal to see 700 species of birds is he spent most summers helping to preserve birds in his career as a wildlife biologist, much working with Canada geese. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Having spent a career as a wildlife biologist, Bob Montgomery appreciates the diversity of the bird species he can see from his backyard in East Dundee. He credits the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act with helping preserve species of birds that nearly went extinct.

      Having spent a career as a wildlife biologist, Bob Montgomery appreciates the diversity of the bird species he can see from his backyard in East Dundee. He credits the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act with helping preserve species of birds that nearly went extinct. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • A prized possession of former Kane County Audubon President Bob Montgomery is a quilt made by his late wife, Sharron. His East Dundee home is filled with images and sculptures of birds.

      A prized possession of former Kane County Audubon President Bob Montgomery is a quilt made by his late wife, Sharron. His East Dundee home is filled with images and sculptures of birds. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The East Dundee home of Bob Montgomery features a collection of wood carvings depicting small birds and larger waterfowl. His backyard is home to at least 20 species of live birds.

      The East Dundee home of Bob Montgomery features a collection of wood carvings depicting small birds and larger waterfowl. His backyard is home to at least 20 species of live birds. John Starks | Staff Photographer

While birders are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the iconic conservation law credited with saving birds such as the trumpeter swan and the bald eagle from extinction, the Trump administration wants to make it easier for businesses to kill wildlife without penalties. That change in the law's interpretation ruffles the feathers of environmentalists and sticks in the craw of wildlife biologist Bob Montgomery, a veteran East Dundee birder who was president of Kane County Audubon in the 1970s.

"It is the founding law for conservation in North America," Montgomery, 77, says of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918. "It's been a strong and useful piece of legislation."

While the change currently is the subject of federal lawsuits, a coalition of conservation professionals who served under presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon are calling for current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to "suspend this ill-conceived opinion." Since the 1970s, industries have worked with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which also includes Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia, to install nets to keep birds from landing in oil waste pits, improve commercial fishing technology to reduce the drowning of seabirds in fishing lines and nets, and make wind turbines less deadly to birds. Under the Trump Administration's plan, companies would be in violation only if they intentionally harm birds.

The century-old law has been "a critical piece of the bird-conservation efforts," says Jim Herbert, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society.

Montgomery became a member of the Junior Audubon Society as a third-grader growing up in downstate Du Quoin, paying his 10-cent dues every month. "A lot of people play sports, but I got hooked on wildlife," says Montgomery, who took a special interest in birds, sketching them from books or tracing them and coloring them. But it took a few years for his fascination to evolve into a true appreciation.

"Like many boys my age at that time, we had slingshots," Montgomery remembers. "I probably was pretty hard on some of the neighborhood birds with my slingshot, but I won't admit to anything."

He worked as a field assistant for local naturalists and got a gig as a forestry aide in the Shawnee National Forest. "I worked for a summer during college on a duck-banding crew in Saskatchewan," says Montgomery, who graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in zoology and plenty of courses in botany.

After a two-year stint in the Army, where he worked as a lab tech, Montgomery took a job as a wildlife biologist with the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation along the Fox River south of East Dundee, where he spent more than 30 years as a steward for the land and animals, especially those with feathers.

"I kind of dominate the inside of my house with my collections and carvings," Montgomery says, showing off a collection of a dozen colorful birds in a beautiful quilt made by his wife, Sharron, who died in 2016. An upland sandpiper carved by acclaimed woodcarver Harold Haertel perches among a host of carved birds. Montgomery hangs a couple of bird banners, bird houses, bird feeders, a bird bath and a bird-crossing sign in his backyard, where he spots 20 species on a regular basis.

"I've got my cardinals, my chickadees, and white-breasted nut hatches and house finches, house sparrow and house wrens," he says. Migrating birds include juncos, goldfinches, warblers, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, hummingbirds and more.

The practice of "market hunting," where a single hunter might bag 400 ducks in a single day to sell to markets and hotels in the city, was outlawed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which set limits and seasons on hunting, Montgomery says. Additional environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and the banning of the pesticide DDT, were major factors in the comeback of the bald eagle and the nearly extinct peregrine falcon.

Montgomery played a role in the revival of a species that had been eliminated from northeastern Illinois until the early 1900s -- the now-ubiquitous Canada goose. "The migratory flocks we had in the 1930s and '40s were about wiped out," says Montgomery, who banded plenty of the birds during the efforts to increase populations. Now so plentiful that the bird is considered a pest by some, Montgomery says he remembers a conservation official telling his team, "You guys have been beat over the head with the hammer handle of success."

"Canada geese are always near and dear to me because I spent 30 years working on them," Montgomery says. "I've had my share of scratches and bites and bruises, but they're one of my favorite birds."

The father of daughters Dawn Gerdes of North Carolina and Stacey Teeple of West Dundee, and grandfather to two girls and two boys, Montgomery enjoys his lush backyard.

"That's a downy woodpecker, probably a youngster," Montgomery says, pointing out a visitor to one of his bird-feeders. You don't have to be a professional or even a conservationist to appreciate the simple pleasure of having an abundance of birds in your life, he says. In addition to serving as a literal canary in the coal mine, alerting us to pollution woes, birds offer moments of beauty, entertainment and tranquillity to people.

"They may not know a robin from a cardinal, but they enjoy watching the birds," Montgomery says. "And we need to protect them."

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