Ray P. Holland: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s warden

Wood Duck, upstate New York. Photo by Teri Franzen.
Wood Duck, upstate New York. Photo by Teri Franzen.

In our August 2016 issue, ornithologist Terry Rich marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with a hard-hitting article about the treaty and its impact. He recounts the history of the treaty and act and identifies four problems that keep it from being enforced effectively. Plus, Rich offers this brief profile of Ray P. Holland, the man he calls “the MBTA’s warden.”

Defender of birds

Ray P. Holland. Credit: Scarsdale Inquirer, August 30, 1929, HRVH Historical Newspapers.
Ray P. Holland. Credit: Scarsdale Inquirer, August 30, 1929, HRVH Historical Newspapers.

Ray P. Holland, the man who lent his name to the landmark case that upheld the constitutionality of the MBTA, was a noted writer and photographer who served as editor of Field & Stream during the magazine’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.

He was both an avid hunter and an early conservationist, an advocate of the Weeks-McLean Bill, which passed Congress as the Migratory Bird Protection Act in
 March 1913 but was later declared unconstitutional.

Between 1914 and 1919, he was District Inspector and United States Game Warden in the Biological Survey 
of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charged with enforcing the new MBTA in seven midwestern states. In the spring of 1919, he arrested five hunters (one of whom was the attorney general of the state of Missouri) near Neosho for shooting ducks out of season, and the state brought suit, challenging the constitutionality of the act.

When the MBTA was upheld in June 1919, Missouri appealed to the Supreme Court, which on April 19, 1920, affirmed that the act was indeed constitutional. Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. authored the famous opinion in Missouri v. Holland.

“To put the claim of the State upon title is to lean against a slender reed,” he wrote. “Wild birds are not in the possession of anyone; and possession is the beginning of ownership. The whole foundation of the states’ rights is the presence within their jurisdiction of birds that yesterday had not arrived, tomorrow may be in another state and in a week a thousand miles away.”

Study: A third of North American bird species need urgent conservation action.

Wesleyan University library: Register of the Ray P. Holland Papers on Enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty, 1872 – 1974.

A version of this article appeared in the August 2016 issue of BirdWatching magazine.


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