Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Streaming video [6:31]

According to the most comprehensive report ever published in the USA, nearly one third of America’s 800 native bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline, thanks to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, competition from invasive species and other threats.

The shocking report, published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, reveals that of the more than 800 bird species that inhabit terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including the Hawaiian islands, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. In addition, more than 184 species are designated as ‘species of conservation’ concern due to their small distributions, high threat levels, or dramatically declining populations.

But not all is lost — yet. Concerted efforts to restore nesting and feeding grounds, ban pesticides and halt development in sensitive wetlands and other migratory stopovers have resulted in conservation success stories for California’s brown pelican, the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, osprey, and several species of herons, egrets, and ducks, as well as other birds.

“Conservation can really work,” observed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who released The State of the Birds yesterday afternoon at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This event was attended by representatives of the American Bird Conservatory, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and other conservation groups.

These analyzed data (see below) were collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service and included the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) as well as trends from 40 years of citizens’ sightings gathered in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count;

Image: The State of the Birds 2009 [larger view].

Most striking in the above figure is the dire situation faced by endemic Hawaiian birds, which Kenneth Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology referred to as “a borderline ecological disaster.”

According to David Pashley, Vice President for conservation programs at the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the situation is so dire that “we’re on the verge of losing not just unique bird species, but entire suites of species.”

“Many bird habitats in Hawaii have been permanently lost to development, and others [are declining due to] the impacts of invasive plants and animals,” added Darin Schroeder, also of the ABC.

More than one-third of all Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed bird species occur in Hawaii and 71 bird species have gone extinct since humans colonized the islands in roughly 300 AD. At least 10 more Hawaiian birds have not been seen in as long as 40 years and are probably extinct. Hawaiian birds are endangered due to habitat destruction, a suite of exotic predators, and imported mosquito species and malaria.

Oceanic and coastal shorebirds are also experiencing significant declines of 39 percent. The populations of half of all migrating coastal shorebirds have declined. Shorebirds face threats from pollution, over-fishing, and warming sea temperatures caused by climate change, as well as threats at island and coastal nesting sites. For example, Red Knots, which “refuel” on sandy beaches during migration, have declined by an alarming 82% because their food, horseshoe crab eggs, has been reduced by an estimated 99 percent by overfishing (read more about Red Knots). Additionally, beach-nesting birds, such as Snowy Plovers and Least Terns, are vulnerable to people, their vehicles and their free-roaming pets that destroy or disturb nests. In fact, declining seabird populations may be our most visible indication of an ocean ecosystem under stress and because of their relatively small and highly threatened global populations, shorebirds are of high conservation concern.

Image: The State of the Birds 2009 [larger view].

In the above figure, you can see that grassland birds (dark blue line) have declined by an astonishing 40 percent during the past 40 years, while birds occupying aridlands and deserts showed a 30 percent decline (light blue line). These dramatic declines indicate that there is an alarming degradation of these often neglected habitats. These birds are rapidly losing ground because of agricultural practices and equipment, such as combines, that result in the wholesale slaughter of nesting birds, and the lack of formal protections for fragile desert, sagebrush, and chaparral ecosystems.

Forest birds, as a group (red line), showed only slight declines during the past 40 years, however, many individual species, such as the Florida scrub-jay and Kirtland’s Warbler, have experienced steep declines and remain threatened by unplanned and sprawling urban development, unsustainable logging, increased severity of wildfires, and a barrage of exotic forest pests and disease, which will likely be exacerbated by climate change.

But you can see in the above figure that there is there is some good news, too. In 1973, the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. For example, due to a concerted effort to restore and protect wetlands, marshland birds have shown a 55 percent increase (green line).

Encouragingly, the ESA has succeeded more often than it has failed, and some successes have been spectacular, such as the increase of the Aleutian Canada Goose from fewer than 1,000 birds to more than 60,000, and the remarkable comeback of the Bald Eagle.

“There are places where many bird species are doing better today than [they] were 10 to 15 years ago,” Salazar pointed out. “Those success efforts should lead us to what we should be doing in the future.”

The overwhelming success of waterfowl management through the coordinated efforts of conservation groups, hunters and the governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico is an important testament to the value of these efforts and should be used as a model for similar efforts in other habitat types.

“These results emphasize that investment in wetlands conservation has paid huge dividends,” agreed Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “Now we need to invest similarly in other neglected habitats where birds are undergoing the steepest declines.”

However, the possibility of extinction is still a tragic reality facing many bird species. Already, 13 species may no longer exist in the wild (10 species from Hawaii, plus Bachman’s Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Eskimo Curlew). Several avian species face unprecedented conflict with humans for land at peak economic value, such as areas in peninsular Florida, the mid-continental prairies, coastal California, the Texas hill country, and the Pacific Northwest.

According to the following tables, of the 74 bird species, subspecies, and populations listed in the United States, 30 have increased since listing, 16 have remained stable, 15 have decreased, and 13 are possibly extinct;

Image: The State of the Birds 2009 [larger view].

Key: E: Endangered, T: Threatened

Population estimates include captive and wild populations where known. Estimates are approximate except for species with very small populations.

Image: The State of the Birds 2009 [larger view].

The most cost-effective and common-sense solution is to stop bird species from declining before they require ESA protection. This requires cooperative conservation efforts involving government and tribal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private landowners designed to keep common birds common and to recover failing bird populations while there is still time.

“What habitat remains must be protected, and we need to invest in jobs to remove and fence out invasive animals from conservation areas,” Schroeder elaborated. “There is also a need to invest in more science to study bird species we know too little about, and to develop new and innovative solutions to stem population declines.”

Unfortunately, some species languish on the candidate list due to lack of resources for listing. The highest priority candidates must be quickly identified and protected so that urgently needed conservation actions can be mounted before it is too late. Funding for endangered Hawaiian birds must be increased: astonishingly, only 4.1% of all state and federal funding for federally listed bird species is spent on Hawaiian birds, which represent 44% of all listed species.

However, data collection and conservation efforts don’t require vast flocks of scientists. For example, the information that went into this report was gathered by ordinary people around the country ..”tens of thousands of people, perhaps millions, who have found that science is fun,” remarked John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The information gathered by birdwatchers and citizens in their own back yards has helped to create “spectacularly massive databases” which Fitzpatrick says can now be used to discover trends in bird populations. “We should engage all Americans in this process,” he said.

What you can do to help:

  1. Make sure your purchases do not harm wild bird populations. For example, insist on only drinking shade-grown coffee, and avoid seafoods that destroy seabirds and other animals as “bycatch” (learn more about environmentally-friendly seafoods).
  2. Reduce or stop pesticide and fertilizer use, purchase organic pesticide-free foods whenever possible and use only nontoxic cleaning agents that do not poison the soil and watershed.
  3. Fight back against invasive plant and animal species, which threaten more than one-third of the birds on the Audubon WatchList. Keep your pet cats indoors at all times and keep dogs on a leash or in a fenced run when outdoors. Landscape your yard only with native plants.
  4. Defend the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and demand that politicians rely on scientists and scientifically collected data to design and implement conservation and restoration efforts.
  5. Share your passion for birds and their habitats with others by example: take a kid birding with you, pick up trash while hiking, learn more about conservation efforts and also share your passion through your writing, music, art, and photography. Participate in citizen-science projects, like the Christmas Bird Count, the Breeding Bird Survey and the Great Backyard Bird Count, which further our knowledge of avian populations. Donate unused binoculars to biologists in the tropics, where most North American migratory birds spend their winters.

Sources:

USFWS Report: The State of the Birds 2009 [free PDF]

The State of the Birds Key Findings Fact Sheet.

The State of the Birds video source.

More Information about wild birds and bird populations:

National Audubon Society, Common Birds in Decline 2007 and State of the birds USA 2004.

State of the UK’s Birds 2005 [free PDF]

State of the World’s Birds 2004 [English: free PDF; Spanish free PDF; French free PDF]

Comments

  1. #1 Chispa Bianco
    March 21, 2009

    The California condors in California aren’t the native California condors. They are “cultivated” (hybridized in the lab?) from Mexican and California condor genes.(I think it is Mexico, may be some other area, but the birds are not genetically the same as the condors originally found in CA.) No native California condors are left. And those “cultivated” ones that were released into the wild are dying. (I think that one was found dead of a gunshot wound, while others are dying from other causes.)

    I agree with the ideas cited to help protect native birds, but let’s get realistic about keeping cats indoors. That just isn’t going to happen: people say “oh it is so cruel to keep a cat locked up indoors”. My neighbors on either side each have 3-5 cats. I live in a small town with a large park running through the center. People drop off their unwanted kittens and mature cats in the park and the number of feral cats is horrendous. The town is considering an ordinance limiting the number of pet cats permitted per household. To six. Six cats per household. That isn’t a limit, it’s an abundance. More realistically and simply, people should put bells on cat’s collars so the birds have some warning. That isn’t an answer, but it helps.

    Spay and neuter regulations should be enacted and enforced. Although a local group is doing great work in capturing the park’s feral cats, getting them the required vaccinations etc and spaying/neutering them and then finding adoptive homes, the number of feral cats is still increasing. One idea being proposed is to put out cat food with birth control medicine in it. But none of that removes the cats from the birds’ environments, it just keeps the cat population from exploding even more.

  2. #2 Bird Advocate
    April 9, 2009

    Chispa Bianco said:
    “I agree with the ideas cited to help protect native birds, but let’s get realistic about keeping cats indoors. That just isn’t going to happen:”

    It will happen if we, the people demand it happens!
    The problem of cat predation is becoming dire everywhere, and will continue to become more so until ecologists and birders organize and put up a united front with our votes! Some of our present organizations are so diluted by the cat enablers all they do is meekly “study” the situation or reluctantly agree to TNR plans. Meanwhile the cat enablers “experts” are lobbying our politicians.
    We hold the winning cards in these facts, there is nothing moral, ethical, lawful, or humane about abandoning a domestic animal into the wild and enabling it to suffer while decimating our wildlife!