catalyst /kat-el-est/ noun. Something that provokes or speeds significant change or action.

Looking at the history of conservation in the United States, we find that, in many cases, a bird inspired people to change their behavior to conserve natural resources. International Migratory Bird Day, which takes place annually on the second Saturday in May, celebrates and supports migratory bird conservation.

Ten “catalyst” birds are represented by the 2003 IMBD artwork, literally poster birds for environmental improvement.

Although long gone from landscape, the passenger pigeon was once one of the most abundant birds in the Americas. The skies would darken as flocks of this dovelike bird descended upon forested breeding grounds.

Americans hunted this seemingly endless supply of birds until, by 1900, they were extinct in the wild. The last captive passenger pigeon died in 1914. Dismayed by this great loss, citizens, scientists and lawmakers began to work together to support the conservation of birds and other wildlife.

Many other birds, such as the Snowy Egret, were slaughtered for fashion during a time when bird plumes were used to adorn ladies’ hats. In response to this exploitation, legislators passed the Lacey Act in 1900, making it a federal crime to cross state lines with birds or bird parts taken illegally. Bird lovers also called for the formation of bird sanctuaries, including the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903: Pelican Island, home to colonies of brown pelicans. A hundred years later, more than 500 National Wildlife Refuges provide homes for our native wildlife.

Responsible sportsmen and women have noted the need to regulate hunting. Hunting licenses for waterfowl such the green-winged teal, other ducks, geese and swans have funded the acquisition of millions of acres of wetlands that provide breeding and wintering areas to waterfowl and nongame birds like the yellow-headed blackbird.

Birds at the top of the food chain came into the limelight in the 1960s when populations of ospreys, brown pelicans, eagles and other raptors crashed. Scientist discovered that organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, accumulated in the birds, causing them to lay extremely thin shells. Eggs were crushed under the weight of incubating adults.

Because of this, as well as health concerns for humans, DDT was banned in the United States and Canada in the early 1970s.

More than 300 species of birds migrate between breeding grounds in the north and wintering grounds to the south.

Long-distance fliers like the American gold plover need protection not only in the United States but in neighboring countries.

This recognition has resulted in treaties between the countries of North America and Asia and protective treaties signed by Canada, United States, Mexico, Japan and Russia.

The need for international cooperation has come up again to protect thick-billed parrots and other parrots from illegal trade as well as to conserve habitat in North America and in the tropics for migratory birds like the black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler.

Although birds have brought attention to the problems that they and other wildlife face daily, everyone can be a catalyst for wildlife conservation.

What can you do to help conserve birds?

Some birds, like parrots, are still threatened by commercial exploitation. Consumers should never buy a parrot or other exotic birds unless they are positive that the bird was bred in captivity. For every bird that makes it to the store, four have died along the way.

Birds are still victims of exposure to pesticides. About 67 million birds die from direct exposure to pesticides on farms, and millions more bird deaths are attributed to homeowners’ use of pesticides.

Lessen your dependence on chemicals by planting native vegetation, using non-chemical means to control pests and, if you must use pesticides, follow all application and disposal instructions.

Drink shade-grown coffee. Because of the increasing demand for coffee worldwide, many of the traditional coffee plantations grown under trees have been converted to high-yield, sun-tolerant plantations, devoid of trees. This translates into loss of habitat for migratory and resident birds. Coffee shrubs grown under a canopy of trees provide shelter and food for wild birds.

Pet and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. Responsible cat owners can reduce the number of unwanted, feral cats by spaying and neutering their cats.

Keeping cats indoors not only saves birds’ lives; indoor cats live longer and healthier lives.

For information about birds and International Migratory Bird Day celebrations, go to the International Migratory Bird Day web site at: http://birds.fws.gov/imbd.html