Birds in Crisis?
Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
I get emails — lots of emails in lots of different email accounts. Many of these emails are fundraising emails — requests for financial support, offering memberships in their organizations, most of them advocating for some great cause.
Lately, I’ve been getting a series of emails once again telling me that North America’s birds are in crisis.
The most featured “fact” in these emails comes from the State of the Birds (2016) [SoTBs] report represented in this endlessly repeated image:
I am a Bird Fan — almost a Bird Groupie. I like birds. I watch birds do their birdy thing. I campaign against feral cats because they are an invasive species that kills wild birds, especially low- and ground-nesting birds. I use the eBird bird watching app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I have used it to report my bird sightings all over the East Coast of the US, the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
I get upset when I hear things like: “Birds Are In Crisis! 37% of all North American bird species — 423 species — are on the Watch List as being “most at risk of extinction without significant action”.
Who is sending out this alarming information? The National Audubon Society and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) — which comprises nearly every environmental and conservation organization in the United States:
If you can think of an organization that doesn’t appear here, please let me know. US Federal agencies appearing include the USDA, USGS, National Park Service, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife, US Department of Defense (really, on the right just under the US Forest Service), US Department of the Interior, and NASA. (Oddly absent is the US Environmental Protection Agency.)
Canada and Mexico likewise have a number of governmental organizations represented.
I doubt very much that these agencies are actually given a major part in the production of this report — I’m sure they supply data if they have it — but I don’t think they have editorial input.
[Set off by yet another alarming fundraising email, I wrote to Cornell Lab of Ornithology about it and received a pleasant reply. Now, I have to admit that I made an error — the Cornell Lab is rather mild in its alarm factor — and I should have written to the National Audubon Society — which is the real culprit in beating the alarm bell for birds. So — for the record — I apologize to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and [mostly] absolve them from blame for Bird Extinction Alarmism.]
Audubon does not get off the hook — here is recent text from their home page:
We must act now.
While there’s still time.
We’re in a race against time — to give birds a fighting chance in a changing world.
Your gift is a vital investment in a healthy future for birds and their habitats.
Audubon’s mission is urgent. The open spaces and iconic landscapes that birds need to survive are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Birds and their habitats are under attack. We must act now to protect the species and places at risk.
With your help, we can fight back. We can protect birds and the places they call home — as long as we have people like you who will help.
My goodness, we’re running out of time! It’s a race and we’re losing, the beleaguered underdog birds don’t have a fighting chance. It’s urgent that we make an investment to prevent iconic landscapes from disappearing. Birds and habitats are under attack….to protect them we can fight back to save the homes of birds. Gee, it’s almost like someone intentionally looked for words and phrases they could use to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Well, of course they did — and that’s my point.
Maybe there is a crisis, after all, 37% of bird species in North America — 432 species in all — are on the Watch List of species that are “most at risk of extinction without significant action”.
I wrote about the birds being threatened by climate change in 2014 and 2015 — and there are some birds that are being affected by changes in their environments. This is perfectly natural and is the way Nature works. When there is an extended drought in the American Southwest, the birds there have less breeding success and their numbers fall to levels that are sustainable under drought conditions. When farmers in the American Northeast let their hay fields and pastures go back to forests, grassland birds decline and transitional-forest birds expand. When breeding habitat in the Arctic improves, with more vegetation and less cold stress, water birds (ducks, geese and the like) that breed there have boom times.
There are birds that are being affected by human development and land use. That is regrettable but that too is perfectly normal and in keeping with the ways of Nature. When hundreds of miles of previously wild seashore are turned into boardwalk-fronted walls of 4-story condominium apartments, nesting habitat is lost. In Cocoa Beach, Florida, there is a strip of beach dunes 50-100 feet wide between the sunblock-coated-tourist-dominated beach and the concrete boardwalks and the condos. Each Spring and Summer, portions of the dunes are roped off with stakes and brightly colored string with signs urging people to stay out of the dunes because shore birds are nesting. But human habitation brings with it predators: domestic cats and dogs inevitably roam free on the beach dunes where they chase nesting birds, eat bird eggs and kill young birds. Once all the beaches have been thus converted, there will be no place for beach nesting birds.
On islands, especially those off the shores of Mexico, humans have brought with them rats and cats, both of which can destroy breeding populations of sea and shore birds that breed there. Goats and sheep eat up the under-story needed by birds for nesting. This is not, of course, anything new, it has gone on for centuries. Eradicating invasive predators from these islands leads to great success in preventing and reversing population declines.
Changes in agricultural practices change the availability of food sources for migrating birds — corn left to dry on the stalk instead of being machine harvested as dry grain — one practice scatters dry whole corn on a field while the other leaves it covered and locked up on the cobs. Adding one more cutting to the hay season runs the mowers over meadow and grassland bird nests. Suppressing forest fires, eliminating forest clear-cutting and trapping out beaver robs the environment of recovering disturbed-forest environments and wet meadows marshes, critical to some birds.
In Nature, change brings about change. As any study of population dynamics tells you, small changes in breeding success or carrying capacity of any of the environments needed by a species can have large and unexpected results on population totals.
Some changes brought about by humans can be changed back — fire-fighting practices can be changed — agricultural practices can be modified. There are some changes that we will not be rolling back — cities will not be torn down, highways will not be ripped up, farms lands will not be abandoned in great quantities. Nature will have to adjust.
Let’s Do The Numbers
Looking at the State of the Birds report, they claim that 432 species are “most at risk”. That’s too many to take a close look at. If we look at the Partners in Flight “Saving Our Shared Birds” report, from which the SoTBs report is drawn, we find a chart more amenable to review. I’ve made a visual summary of the “Species at Greatest Risk of Extinction“ chart and include it at the bottom of the essay for those interested in the details [not all columns are shown in the summary – for the full chart, see the linked pdf, page 38-43].
In order to evaluate the SoTBs report in general, I’ll look ONLY at these 44 birds on the Partners In Flight chart of “Species at Greatest Risk”. On this list of 44 species, 12 are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (considered the gold standard for information about species conservation status) in the two lowest categories of concern: Least Concern (LC) and NT (Near Threatened). There are 11 more listed by the IUCN as VU (Vulnerable). That’s a total of 23, less than half of the Greatest Risk list, that are classified as less-than Endangered by the IUCN.
I will accept the IUCN’s rating for birds of Least Concern and Near Threatened — and will not consider them further here. This eliminates 12 of the “Greatest Risk” birds from the start — I will leave it to the specialists to decide why there is so much disagreement between major groups.
Of these Greatest Risk bird species, there remain 32 that we might examine. Rather than do so individually, it makes more sense to see if there are broad categories that can be considered together.
On this list of 44 birds at greatest risk are 19 which are marked as threatened by future climate change. Three of these are in the IUCN’s two lowest concern categories — and I suspect that the climate concern is overblown.
One more, the Cozumel thrasher, is marked Critically Endangered and possibly Extinct already. Jim Steele informed me by email that its demise is blamed, by some, on climate “due to its disappearance after a hurricane”. Other factors are more likely to be the true cause. As we all know, the Yucatan has been raked by hurricanes repeatedly in the last century and one more hurricane is unlikely to be the reason for its disappearance. Cozumel is a small island at the northern tip of the Yucatan facing the Caribbean Sea. Island species with small initial populations are always at risk by even tiny disturbances. Cozumel, in the meantime, has transitioned to a major international tourist destination — with all that implies for the local environment.
Highlighted in dark green, in the column Primary Habitat, we see 9 species listed as Tropical Highland Forests. All nine of these are listed as threatened by climate change. Many North American birds migrate in the winter to these forests in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala (as well as further south in Central and South America). Those migrating bird species that require very specialized nesting environments, or have very small populations to begin with, are those that are hardest hit by changes in the region. The greatest threat to habitat is the ongoing massive deforestation for agriculture. Clearing forests for agriculture is hardly an effect of climate change.
Climate does play a role — these same tropical highlands forests are also the perfect habitat and climate for growing coffee — a major cash crop in the region. The native forest is being converted to coffee plantings as a cash crop of vital importance to the poor farmers of the region. Major conservation efforts are underway to modify the manner in which coffee is grown there in order to preserve the native habitat. This presents a difficult social/environmental problem and a variety of solutions are being tried.
In the Dominican Republic, in the northern Caribbean, a long-term project funded in part by the humanitarian NGO that my wife and I directed was encouraging and helping the local people living on the dry western facing slopes of Cordillero Central (central mountain range) to reforest the area by inter-planting multi-story perma-culture stands of native trees with cash crops, such as coffee, lime and avocado in the under-story, along with annual subsistence food crops at ground level. This provided a vibrant environment that replaced long-ago clear-cut native forests with a forest that provided habitat for both people and birds, protected the watershed, and provided cash crops and food for the local population. Similar efforts are underway in Central America.
Many of the Greatest Risk species are similar to the two species from Socorro Island – a tiny volcanic island in the Revillagigedo Islands, 370 miles south of the southern tip of Baja California. Both the Socorro Dove and the Socorro Mockingbird are found only on this little island and are threatened by human-induced predators — the cat and the rat. Loehle and Eschenbach (2011) clearly demonstrated that “high extinction rates on islands are attributable to effects of uncontrolled hunting by humans and predation by introduced animal species.”
There are the two listed Aridlands birds, both naturally threatened by the continued long-term drought in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico — their populations dropping to the lower carrying capacity of the region. While this is unfortunate, it is as Nature requires. This is a direct effect of the climatic conditions there but not an effect of changing climate — the region has seen repeating droughts, long and short, throughout the paleo-historic record.
Of note is the number of birds found only or primarily in Mexico on the Greatest Risk list. The human population of Mexico has increased, in just the last ten years, from 111 million to 131 million — an increase of 20 million. “Mexico has a territory of 198 million hectares [764,482 sq miles] of which fifteen percent is dedicated to agricultural crops and fifty eight percent which is used for livestock production. “ – Wiki. 73% of the available land is used for crops and cattle. And while 34% is still considered forested, livestock is run on some of the forested land (accounting for the overlapping percentages). That doesn’t leave much for the birds, a great many of whom migrate to southern Mexico from the entirety of Canada and the United States — that’s a lot of birds squeezed into a small area that is undergoing a lot of change. (See the image labelled Winter Migration above.) Almost none of the change in southern Mexico is due to climate — it is due to widespread deforestation to accommodate agriculture — both commercial and sustenance farming and livestock production.
We also have a couple of oddball problems with the birds:
The Gunnison Sage Grouse (and all other species of sage grouse in the US and Canada), already being pressured by shrinking habitat, is being hounded by tourists flocking to see its famously beautiful mating dances at lek sites — sites where male sage grouse put on mating displays — interfering with breeding, already complicated by their lek-based mating system and very narrow range of acceptable nesting site parameters.
Likewise limited to small, fragmented habitat is the Belding Yellowthroat — marked as threatened by climate change — found only in certain small, fragmented freshwater-marsh areas of Mexico’s Baja California. The IUCN says: “This species is suspected to be undergoing a rapid population decline owing to pressures on Baja California’s oases and the resultant conversion of habitat at many sites.“ Again, not changing climate, but changing conditions in habitat, mostly due to increased human activity.
The Bearded Wood-partridge has the unfortunate feature of being big enough to eat and being far too similar in appearance to their Least Concern cousins — the very similar and deliciously edible Long-tail Wood Partridge — with which it shares a range. It is reported that hunters shoot the rarer Beardeds unable to tell the difference between the two birds. Though marked as Threatened by Climate Change, the biggest threats are “Habitat destruction and fragmentation are the result of logging, clearance for agriculture, road-building, tourist developments, intensive urbanisation, sheep-ranching and grazing…Conversion from shade to sun coffee…subsistence hunting, predators, genetic retrogression and further human encroachment.”
The Red-crowned Amazon (aka Green-cheeked Amazon, Red-crowned Parrot) — although listed as “endangered”, but not by climate change — has recently established populations in urban areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Texas), USA, as well as feral breeding populations that have established themselves (and are increasing) in Florida, California, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Curious that it can be both endangered and an invasive pest species.
The poor California Condor — hunted to very near extinction — has been saved through heroic efforts — but may never establish true free-living self-sustaining populations.
Several species, according to the IUCN Red List, are endangered because they are interbreeding with closely related species sharing the same range. [This last fact brings up the question: Does Biology really have an agreed upon strict definition of “species” that is universally accepted and in use? Answer: It does not.]
Not appearing on the Greatest Risk list are a number of sea and shore birds that nest on the offshore islands along the Mexican coast — islands that are increasingly supporting human populations and along with the people come cats, and rats, and dogs, and sheep, and goats… — all of which threaten the nests and young of these ground-nesting shorebirds whose populations are believed to be declining. Again, nothing climate related here.
So where does that leave us?
In total, there are thought to be 882 bird species belonging to about 60 taxonomic families in North America. Some are currently “winning” in the great game of survival — some are currently “losing”. Human activity, as a predominate factor in the North American environment, has a huge influence on which species are the winners and which are the losers.
I have made a broad brush sweep across the species considered to be at Greatest Risk — and there are some that are seriously in trouble — for some of those, the blame can be laid at the feet of Mankind.
Conservation efforts have had some great successes: the elimination of lead shot for hunters, preservation of wetlands on migration routes, laws forbidding or limiting the hunting of certain species and, conversely, encouraging the hunting of others, eliminating invasive species from islands, and the creation of National Seashores that provide safe and undisturbed nesting sites for shore birds.
My review of the State of the Birds and the Partners in Flight reports show that there are, on the tri-national list, 30 or so species for whom action may prevent further loses or extinction. Success is not certain as some of these species are Darwinian dead-ends on their way out whether we intervene or not. There are none for which the main concern can be ascribed to current or future climate change.
Note: In the larger sense, when habitats undergo changes in micro-, local or regional climate, a perfectly natural occurrence at all time scales, the carrying capacity changes resulting in changes in plant, animal and bird populations. These changes in carrying capacity, due to the nature of population dynamics, can be stabilizing, catastrophic or seemingly innocuous.
Human poverty in southern Mexico and Guatemala (and the rest of Central America) is not going to solve itself so the people there will continue to do what they have to do in order to grow cash crops to feed their families and lift themselves, if possible, out of abject poverty. This is the major environmental conflict for North American migratory birds and those species endemic to that area.
There are specific conservation actions, mostly already underway, that will have positive effects for some bird species. Almost all of these actions need to happen in Mexico and Central America — and need to be funded by international NGOs, the majority of the funds coming from the Unites States (federal government agencies or citizen and corporate donors).
If you are concerned about the birds, I suggest that you contact a local bird conservation group and find out what you can do to help – there are things to be done. If you’ve got more money than time, there are responsible international conservation groups that don’t waste your money — there are plenty of online resources for investigating what charities do with the money you give them [ here and here and here].
Keep your pet cat in the house or restricted to your yard. Support programs to reduce or eliminated local feral cat populations.
As for me? Well….I just like birds.
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My advice is that you chose carefully where your donations go — far too many NGOs spend too much on fund-raising and not enough on actual end-user programs. An example is:
Programs: 83% Fundraising: 12% Administrative: 5%
Total Income $118,637,829
Program expenses 73,880,470
Fundraising expenses $10,499,287
Administrative expenses $4,860,090
Other expenses $0
Total expenses: $89,239,847
Income in Excess of Expenses 29,397,982
Note: “Some ($6,335,000 or 8%) of [this NGO’s] programs are conducted in conjunction with fund raising appeals.” That makes a total of almost $17 million spent on fundraising, 18% of total expenses. $17 million on fundraising and they end up with a $29 million unspent surplus. They are either over-fundraising or under-programing.
This particular example has fairly moderate outrageous fund-raising expenses — some NGOs exceed 35%.
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The Charts: (Link to larger Greatest Risk Chart)
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Author’s Comment Policy:
This essay is about alarmism in fundraising — in this case on behalf of North America’s birds. I’d like to hear from readers who are themselves involved in NGO charitable fundraising and how they go about it without hitting the Panic Button. It is also about the excessive and unscientific use of Climate Science Alarm [itself unscientific] to support an otherwise nominally deserving cause.
Thanks to Jim Steele who offered suggestions and advice on the content of this essay. Given that, please note that all errors and omissions, opinions, and other nonsense are solely mine.
I’d love to hear your bird related personal experiences — and how your local birding organizations are doing simple useful things to improve the local environment for birds.
Let’s not talk about cats — except as an invasive species.
To get my personal attention in comments, begin your comment with “Kip…”
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