Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
There have been many claims from environmentalist and nature groups that modern civilization, climate change, pollution, wind farms and pesticide use have been driving bird populations down all across North and Central America. I see these claims in my email inbox because I am a big fan of birds — almost a bird groupie — and my email address appears on the mailing lists of birding organizations like Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I love to watch and listen to birds of all kinds and have nearly missed crashing my cars more times that I wish to admit due to seeing some interesting avian event.
Several years ago while doing humanitarian work in Puerto Rico, I swerved off the road (intentionally this time) to spend an hour watching a male pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura), with its outsized tail feathers, attempting to get into flight from the ground. He was having a hard time of it with his tail getting snared by clumps of grass and bushes and was obviously pretty tired out from his repeated attempts. I was afraid he would be discovered by a cat or dog (and killed) but, to my relief, after about 20 minutes he finally managed to get airborne and perch on the electrical transmission wires. Pin-tailed whydahs are an introduced species in Puerto Rico and are originally from Africa. The one I was watching had even longer tail feathers than the one in the photo.
I have been annoyed by the constant drumbeat of alarm and despair spread by some organizations (National Audubon being the worst in my opinion) claiming that bird populations are seriously declining and that many birds are threatened with imminent extinction. Nearly all of these claims are wrapped into a plea for donations. I’ve written about this here at WUWT before:
And, of course, the truth is that some bird populations are declining due to a wide variety of causes: some that mankind can control and many that mankind has no power over. Of the factors that mankind can control, some should be addressed such as rapid and unnecessary deforestation in Central America, unnecessary over-use of pesticides in some countries and poorly considered land-use changes. As wind power continues to be subsidized by governments, questions are being raised about bird deaths, particularly of the already stressed raptor populations. Other bird populations are increasing — for reasons easily understood by ecologists and land-use managers such as Young Forest bird increases due to farm land being abandoned (thus beginning to transition to forest land) and Mature Forest birds increasing as more and more forest land is put under the protection of national and state park systems and is no longer harvested for timber.
This week though we have had Good News on the birding front. Mind-boggling good news. Front Page good news.
If you missed it, here are some headlines:
The birding event these press reports are talking about is summarized in the official eBird report filed collectively by François-Xavier Grandmont, Ian Davies, Sarah Dzielski, Thierry Grandmont, Tim Lenz and Tom Auer. Ian Davies, who is a project coordinator of the eBird project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, gives this first hand report:
“On our arrival (545a), it was raining. A few warblers passed here and there, and we got excited about groups of 5-10 birds. Shortly before 6:30a, there was a break in the showers, and things were never the same.
For the next 9 hours, we counted a nonstop flight of warblers, at times covering the entire visible sky from horizon to horizon. The volume of flight calls was so vast that it often faded into a constant background buzz. There were times where there were so many birds, so close, that naked eyes were better than binoculars to count and identify. … For hours at a time, a single binocular scan would give you hundreds or low thousands of warblers below eye level.”
All told, by the end of their nine-hour day, this one group of six expert birders at a single location — the Tadoussac bird observatory in Quebec, on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River — counted over 720,000 migrating warblers of various species. They estimated that the total of warblers in motion that day in that general area totaled upwards of a million birds.
To understand the magnitude of this event, one needs to realize that this number of migrating warblers was seen by a small group at a limited location and therefore must represent an incredibly small fraction of the total number of warblers in this year’s migration. Those interested can watch a video of birds whipping by the photographer at speed, just feet above the ground — in some cases, passing between his legs — you have to watch carefully, they are really moving.
Pascal Côté, the director of the Tadoussac Bird Observatory, said: “I think millions flew over Quebec, and all over the whole province. It’s the biggest one [migration] ever [recorded] in North America.” Birds were overtaking lawns and highway medians. Radio stations were flooded with calls from confused residents. Weather radar picked up on the flocks as though they were clouds.
Among the birds sighted were over 100,000 Cape May Warblers. Note that the Cape May Warbler is on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The sighting of so many Cape Mays on a single day in a single location casts doubt on their “most at risk of extinction” status.
As I have pointed out before, many (possibly most) bird populations swell and shrink mostly for reasons far beyond our control. Some, like beach-nesting shore and sea birds are being adversely affected by Man’s mania with building condos on every stretch of available beach and regulation of such development is called for along with the designation of National and State Sea Shore reserves.
Want to help dispel the gloom about birds and participate in citizen science? Join the eBird Team and get’a birding! More knowledge means better understanding. Better understanding means better science policy.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I enjoy reading your comments — positive or negative, preferably on topic.
This essay is meant to help dispel the doom-and-gloom culture that has overrun what, until the middle 1960’s, was a joyous endeavor — the celebration and protection of all things Nature. Today’s mean-spirited, often societally destructive and pointedly biased as anti-human “environmental movement” has lost my support — I cannot sanction their attitudes nor their actions.
There are many helpful and useful local actions undertaken by concerned citizens that are uninfected by the disease that has soured national and international environmental movements — and I urge you to support them with your funds and your time.
If you address your comment to “Kip…” I will be sure to see it.
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