Space for the birds
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1997:
How far should habitat protection
go? How big is critical habitat?
A four-ounce common tern banded
at Helsinki University in Finland last June
gave a holistic answer on January 24 when
captured by ornithologist Clive Minton of
Victoria, Australia, having winged 16,000
miles, 125 miles a day, since she left
Finland on or about August 15. The flight
broke the record held since 1956 by an Arctic
tern who flew 14,000 miles, from White
Russia to Fremantle, Australia.
Swallow-tailed kites have been
known to make one of the longest migrations
of any raptor since the 1960s, when a kite
banded in southern Florida was shot in southeastern
Brazil, but their winter habitat was
discovered only this past winter, when ecologist
Ken Meyer of the Big Cypress National
Preserve tracked a kite from Florida to the
same part of Brazil through the use of a tiny
satellite transmitter, weighing just a twelfth
of an ounce, glued to the kite’s tailfeathers.
The kite’s 5,000-mile current range is actually
truncated from what it was in the 19th century.
Now nesting mainly in Florida, they
did nest as far north as Minnesota.
Peregrine falcons go farther still,
according to data recorded with similar transmitters,
ranging in some cases from eastern
Alaska to Suriname––9,000 miles.
Some birds cannot survive outside a
specific environment little bigger than a suburban
back yard. Critical habitat for others is
the earth, including the oceans.
How well birds as a class are doing
all depends on which species one considers.
Kites are down; peregrines are up, from just
300 breeding pairs in the early 1970s to nearly
2,000 now. Because adults of either
species are top predators, the status of both is
inseparable from that of their prey––for the
peregrine, mostly smaller birds.
Intelligent, warmblooded, and apparently as old an
order as the closely related dinosaurs, birds may provide the
best available index to the health of the planet. But the sheer
variety of birds makes the index hard to read. Birds live both
wherever reptiles and mammals do, and where neither reptiles
nor mammals normally venture. More than half of all terrestrial
vertebrate species are birds. Most have a brief lifespan, but
parrots may live 100 years or more, and a female fulmar banded
as a mature bird in 1951 still breeds annually on the island of
Eynhallow, north of Scotland. Members of the petral family,
fulmars were almost extinct in 1900, with just one known
breeding site, but this particular fulmar, dubbed #57, has
more descendants now than the sum of her species then.
Whether the bird news is good or bad, in short,
depends on which species you look at, over what time frame.
The popular belief that birds are in trouble seemed to
be affirmed from a seven-year study published in February by
the journal Global Change Biology, which found a 90%
decrease in the presence of sooty shearwaters off the California
coast from 1987 to 1994, coinciding with a rise of half a degree
in ocean temperature. This brought a crash in plankton growth,
also believed to be hurting baleen whales. Among the most
common of all birds, sooty shearwaters breed in southeastern
Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and the Falkland Islands, but
migrate around both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Investigators called the report, “The first scientific
indication of a link between global warming and the loss of a
major wildlife resource.”
But the unknowns still far outnumber the knowns.
Warmer seas could stimulate some plankton species to replace
others. The estimated four million missing shearwaters may
have moved farther offshore. Since global warming seems to
have begun at least 40 years ago, both the plankton and the
shearwaters may have been declining before the study began.
Bald eagles thrive
Ninety U.S. bird species, 14% of those who breed
here, are endangered or in decline, the National Audubon
Society warned in October 1996. Typifying species at risk by
region, Audubon president John Flicker cited the goldenwinged
warbler in the northeast, the curved bill thrasher in the
southwest, and the yellow-headed blackbird in the northwest.
Audubon Christmas bird count figures for 1996
seemed to confirm a drop in avian diversity. The 39th annual
count by the Audubon Society of Broward County, Florida,
found 122 species, well below the high of 174 reached about
20 years ago. At the opposite corner of the continental U.S.,
the 11th annual count by the Audubon Society of Whidbey
Island, Washington, found 111 species, down from 116 in
1995, which was one less that the all-time high of 117, even
though an unusually harsh winter in British Columbia pushed
snowy owls and other species normally rare in the Puget Sound
area down to Whidbey.
But the most avidly conserved birds are way up in
number––those of most target interest to hunters, especially
waterfowl and wild turkeys, and the charismatic raptors, who
if they aren’t poisoned or shot, tend to thrive on the pigeons,
rats, and roadkill that come with human development.
Bald eagles, federally downlisted from “endangered”
to “threatened” in 1994, came off the Wisconsin “threatened”
list on February 26, after the 1996 count of nesting pairs soared
to 612, up from 464 in 1993 and 107 in 1973. Then as now,
Wisconsin had the most bald eagles of any continental state.
There were then just 450 nesting pairs in the U.S. outside
Alaska; there are now 4,000-plus, and 16,000 total individuals.
The New Jersey bald eagle count soared to 176, up
from 116 last year. And it seems eagles especially like airports.
A January 13 count at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving
Ground in Maryland found 152 individual eagles and 23 nests,
up from 20 eagles and three nests in 1981, when annual counts
began, while at least 57 eagles now live near the two-year-old
Denver International Arport, helping to keep other birds off the
runways at risk of becoming airstrikes themselves.
The U.S. success does not necessarily give hope to
the Philippine Eagle Recovery Foundation, formed to save the
recently recognized Philippine national bird. The monkey-eating
Philippine eagle not only suffers from food chain build-ups
of pesticides and habitat loss, the factors that kept the bald
eagle in decline even after hunting was curbed, but also takes
two to three times longer to reach sexual maturity, and produces
only one egg every two to three years, whereas the bald
eagle produces an egg almost every year. PERF believes it has
virtually stopped eagle hunting in the Philippines. Pesticides
known to cause thinning of eagle eggs have been used in the
Philippines far more heavily than in the U.S., however, for
longer, with less restrictions, and there are apparently only 87
Philippine eagles left, including 14 in the PERF captive breeding
program. PERF hatched two healthy eaglets from artificial
insemination in 1992, but has not been able to do it again.
Recent setbacks to regional bald eagle recovery in the
U.S. could be disastrous if anything similar occurred in the
Philippines. Near Daytona Beach, Florida, six bald eagles
died and three survived serious illness last year after scavenging
the carcasses of animals killed by the Flagler County
Humane Society and buried at the Volusia County Landfill, the
Orlando Sentinel reported on February 26. According to federal
regulations, the carcasses should have been burned as hazardous
waste. Upon learning of the problem, shelter director
Joye Wood quit sending carcasses to the landfill, and sent
$7,000 to the Florida Audubon Society Center for Birds of Prey
to cover the cost of rehabilitating the surviving bald eagles.
Eagle shooting continues, not only by ranchers who
think they’re protecting stock, but also by hunters who don’t
think at all. At least four bald eagles have been shot in upstate
New York during the past two years, including a four-year-old
female killed just before Christmas by Judson A. Tompkins,
17, of Red Creek, and Richard M. Egnor, 18, of Wolcott.
“We were out hunting coons and we shot at a bird.
We didn’t know it was an eagle,” Egnor told Greg Munno of
the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Random shooting accounts for 20% of all bald eagle
deaths in South Carolina, state Department of Natural
Resources biologist Tom Murphy testified recently, persuading
the state legislature to increase the maximum penalty for eagle
killing to a year in prison, plus a fine of $500 and a five-year
suspension of hunting privileges. The old penalty was 30 days
in jail with a fine of $100. When it was imposed, Murphy indicated,
random shooting accounted for 60% of bald eagle
deaths––but there were far fewer eagles.
Lead poisoning from ingesting shot, a familiar threat
to waterfowl, has also surfaced in bald eagles, who scavenge
carcasses killed but abandoned by hunters. After two eagles
died of lead poisoning in two months, the Wildlife Center of
Virginia on January 6 issued a special appeal to hunters to
retrieve their victims––as is required by largely unenforced law.
An unidentified brain-destroying disease or toxin,
apparently also afflicting coots, killed 23 bald eagles in southwestern
Arkansas this winter, and killed 29 eagles two winters
ago––but only one eagle during the harsh winter of 1995-1996.
The winter of 1995-1996 hurt Ohio and Michigan eagles, however,
as the survival rate of fledglings fell to 50%.
Black vultures are viewed as a public nuisance wherever
they congregate near people, notably in Hinckley, Ohio,
and Leesburg, Virginia. Hinckley welcomes the vultures with
an annual festival, but Leesburg in early March asked the
USDA Animal Damage Control unit to roust theirs. Not
allowed to kill vultures, because they are a protected species,
the ADC hopes to live-trap and relocate them. This is expected
to be messy, as black vultures defend themselves––like the
dilophosaurus in the film Jurassic Park, and like the unexpectedly
longlived fulmars––with noxious projectile vomiting.
Some raptors are still struggling, especially owls,
whose needs are often highly specialized. Spotted owls have
proved able to like outside old growth forests, contrary to the
beliefs of a decade ago, but tend to lose second-growth habitat
in competition with barred owls, with whom they also
hybridize. The battle over designating spotted owl critical habitat
resumed on March 7 when chief circuit judge Harry
Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
reversed a 1996 District Court ruling that had expedited acceptance
of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
The timber industry may now file suit against the plan.
University of Wisconsin sociologist Bill Freudenberg
told the American Association for the Advancement of Science
on February 14 that there is “no statistically believeable evidence
of a ‘spotted owl’ effect on logging jobs,” contrary to
the assertions of the timber industry, which has blamed spotted
owl protection for downsizing actually due to exhausted forests,
technological change, and the export of logs rather than finished
lumber to Japan. But the Freudenberg findings are not
likely to dampen the rage of unemployed timber workers.
The ongoing purge of prairie dogs across the Midwest
jeopardizes the burrowing owl, says Burrowing Owl Research
Team chief Geoff Holroyd, of Edmonton, Alberta. The owls
use the burrows of prairie dogs and badgers, a leading prairie
dog predator. The burrowing owl population summering in
Alberta and Saskatchewan, now at about 1,000 pair, is declining
at 16% per year, according to Holroyd, who is trying to
persuade farmers to leave both prairie dogs and badgers alone.
On February 28, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl,
native to Arizona, was added to the federal endangered species
list, under pressure of a lawsuit filed by the Southwest Center
for Biological Diversity. The center intends to press the suit
regardless, said executive director Kieran Suckling, seeking
designation of critical habitat. The owl needs ironwood trees in
river or wash areas. At least a dozen of the owls have turned up
recently on private land northwest of Tucson, accounting for
about half of all recorded sightings in several decades. The
owls were reportedly abundant in the region circa 1900, however,
and according to Southern Arizona Home Builders
Association president Alan Lurie, are still “prolific in Mexico.”
Legal strife over the status of the owl is likely to center
on 5,500 acres of ironwoods and endangered saguaro cactus
in RedHawk, a Tucson suburb, purchased in May 1996 from
Westinghouse by Cottonwood Properties. Cottonwood
wants to build a 9,000-home subdivision, with four golf
courses and three resort hotels. Cottonwood president David
Mehl claims the whole purpose of the SCBD lawsuit was “to
try to stop development.” Since Westinghouse barred Arizona
Game and Fish Department staff from the land, there is no official
verdict as to the presence of owls; a survey commissioned
by Cottonwood claimed last October that there were none.
An endangered listing is pending for the Queen
Charlotte goshawk, native to old growth coastal rainforest in
southeastern Alaska. That listing might have been highly controversial
while pulp mills owned in part by Senator Frank
Murkowski (D-Alaska) were still operating in Juneau and
Ketchikan, but both mills are now closed for dismantling.
Listing the goshawk could still affect logging in the Tongass
National Forest, on Alaska state lands, and on tribal property.
As many as 20,000 of the 400,000-strong migration
of Swainson’s hawks from North America to Argentina were
killed in 1995 by exposure to the pesticide monocrotophos,
used on Argentinian alfalfa and sunflower crops to control
grasshoppers, the Swainson’s hawks’ primary food. But an
monocrotophos will no longer be sold or used in Swainson’s
hawk habitat during their southern migration, according to a
deal cut last October among the Canadian Wildlife Service,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 10 nonprofit conservation
groups, the Argentinian government, and the makers of
monocrotophos, the Swiss-based firm Ciba-Geigy. The question
now is whether related pesticides still in use, such as
dimethoate, will hit the Swainson’s hawks as hard.
Sharp-shinned hawk sightings in New York rose 9%
last year, and in Pennsylvania by 21%, stimulated by the
resurgence of waterfowl, their primary prey. Redtailed hawk
sightings were up 1% in New York and 6% in Pennsylvania,
while a 3% decline in New Jersey was probably just a matter of
redtails moving temporarily into the neighboring states.
Waterfowl continue to benefit from the midwestern
flooding of 1994, which extensively replenished wetlands.
The growing midwestern waterfowl population has fanned out
far beyond the flood zone. Nearly 90 million ducks flew south
in late 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported––the
most in 40 years, nearly twice the flights of the late 1980s.
Geese are doing so well that besides opening hunting
seasons on the resident Canada geese of the Atlantic seaboard
and upper midwest, who are descended from birds raised as
live hunting decoys and annoy suburbanites by pooping on
lawns, wildlife managers are hot to expand opportunities to kill
the much smaller migratory snow geese. Lesser snow geese,
the most numerous subspecies, summer in northern Canada
and winter in Arkansas and Texas. Greater snow geese also
summer in Canada, but winter on the Atlantic seaboard.
The Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group held in a
118-page report published in mid-February that lesser snow
geese have destroyed 35% of their nesting and grazing habitat
in a belt from James Bay to the Northwest Territories.
Supposedly the snow geese may cause the extinction of 200
other birds who share their habitat, and have shared it for millions
of years, during which populations and environmental
impacts have often fluctuated. Snow goose numbers are up
from about one million in 1960 to anywhere from 3.5 million to
six million. Wildlife managers agree only that about one million
should now be blasted by paying permit holders.
North Dakota Game and Fish Department migratory
game bird supervisor Mike Johnson issued the high-end snow
goose population estimate in the August 1996 edition of North
Dakota Outdoors, just as other North Dakota wildlife authori-
ties, including state veterinarian William Rotenberger, argued
that more foxes and coyotes must be trapped and sent to southern
chase pens to protect waterfowl. In an unrelated matter perhaps
illuminating Rotenberger’s credibility, North Dakota agriculture
commissioner Roger Johnson on March 7 reportedly
recommended that Rotenberger be fired, after learning that
Rotenberger had applied for $5,000 from South Dakota to fence
an elk farm he planned to start with 10 female elk and five
bulls––just after Rotenberger took to his South Dakota ranch
without permission 10 female elk and five bulls belonging to
the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Apparently also taking advantage of better habitat,
endangered migratory whooping cranes briefly exceeded the
post-1937 record count of 158, reached in 1995, but in
November 1996 one crane died, dropping the year-end count
back to 158. The recorded low was reportedly either 14 or 16,
at some point in the 1930s. Like migratory ducks and geese,
whooping cranes rove between the southern U.S. and Canada.
The only whooping crane wintering site, however, is the
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, along the Texas coast.
Good news about trumpeter swans came in January,
when the Ohio Division of Wildlife confirmed that of 15 captive-bred
swans released a year ago at Magee Marsh on Lake
Erie, six migrated successfully––four to the Keiger-Gavin lock
on the Ohio River, and two to the Walhonding River in
Coshecton County. One died of lead poisoning, probably from
ingesting lead shot or a lead fishing sinker, and three had to be
recaptured due to difficulty with flying. There are now about
1,000 trumpeter swans in the upper midwest. In Illinois, however,
hunters killed four and wounded two, purportedly mistaking
them for snow geese.
“That’s like mistaking a Volkswagen for a bicycle,”
observed Dick Connors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Neither habitat loss nor hunters are the current threat
to loons in northern New England. Though nearly hunted to
extinction for their feathers in the 19th century, loons seemed
to be making a comeback––until hit by mercury poisoning,
identified by Mark Pokras of the Tufts University School of
Veterinary Medicine. The mercury comes from a diet of fish
whose bodies contain about 10 times as much mercury as the
global norm. Where the fish get the mercury is uncertain, as
the effect is too widespread to indicate a single pollution point
source. One theory is that the mercury arrives with acid rain.
The mercury isn’t just a regional problem, however, as rising
levels are also evident in the Everglades and Okeefenokee
swamps, in Florida and Georgia, which are also critical bird
habitats but are both well south of the acid rain belt.
A January 15 meeting of the New Jersey state advisory
council on wildlife heard that both mercury pollution and
other toxic chemicals are turning up at alarming levels among
the birds of Barnegat Bay. The concentrations are most evident
among eagles, as the top avian predators, but also may be
afflicting snowy egrets, whose numbers have dropped from
550 pairs in 1976 to 100 as of 1995; glossy ibises, down from
400 pairs to 100; and black-crowned night herons, down from
225 pairs to only two. Black-backed gulls and herring gulls,
who thrive in disturbed habitats––and prey on the declining
species’ nests and fledglings––are sharply up.
Both pesticides and habitat loss afflict birds within
the 280-square-mile Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges complex,
as documented in August 1996 by Kathie Durbin of Cascadia
Times, an environmental newspaper published from Portland,
Oregon, and confirmed on March 1 by Richard Cole of
Associated Press. Under the terms that established the refuge
in 1928, farmers retained rights to the refuge land and water.
The 1964 Kuchel Act further stipulated that up to 25% of the
leased land on the refuge may be used to grow row crops, the
cultivation of which involves extensive use of chemical sprays.
The Kuchel Act was passed after the late Rachel Carson
detailed harm to birds within the Klamath Basin Refuges from
DDT and other pesticides, in her 1962 bestseller Silent Spring.
“Until 1994,” explained Durbin, “when the Oregon
Natural Resources Council blew the whistle, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service sanctioned the unpermitted use of federally
restricted toxic pesticides by Tule Lake Refuge lease holders.”
The Tule Lake Refuge is one of the major divisions of the
Klamath complex. “The USFWS itself contines to apply the
pesticide 2,4-D,” lethal to many birds, “on grain crops it
grows on the refuges to provide food and cover for waterfowl,”
Durbin continued. “Waterfowl numbers have plummeted from
six million to three million in three decades.”
Agribusiness water diversions have also robbed
salmon and an endangered sucker species of access to spawning
areas. Said Cole, “Tule Lake has become little more than
an agricultural sump holding runoff from leased farms. The
lake once covered 150 square miles up to 50 feet deep in wet
years. It now covers only 20 square miles with less than a foot
of water––sometimes polluted to the alkalinity of dish soap.”
The situation is scarcely unique to the U.S. On
February 4, Greg Roberts of the Morning Herald in Sydney,
Australia, revealed that, “Hundreds of waterbird nestlings
have perished after their breeding swamps along the Murray
River in western New South Wales were drained at the insistence
of the Victorian government,” contrary to a 1993 conservation
agreement, to irrigate nearby farms for about four days.
“As many as 4,000 night herons, egrets, spoonbills, and other
waterbirds were forced to abandon nests,” Roberts reported.
These were the first nests they had been able to start in years.
“The forests once contained some of Australia’s largest waterbird
colonies,” Roberts wrote, “but the construction of dams
has prevented them from being flooded annually and retaining
sufficient water for nesting.”
Grass and sage
An exception to the recovery of birds favored for
hunting, and therefore by wildlife agencies, are grouse––
which have always been believed to be so numerous that hardly
anyone bothered to stock them, protect their habitat, or significantly
limit their assassination. In the east, the Ruffed Grouse
Society, of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, has just begun a fivestate,
six-year study to try to find out whether late-winter hunting
hurts grouse reproduction. Another contributing factor may
be the destruction of forest understory by deer, whom wildlife
agencies have encouraged to proliferate to record numbers to
please hunters, with––as ANIMAL PEOPLE outlined in
March––devastating impact on many forest bird species.
In the west, the sage grouse is declining, says High
Desert Ecological Research Institute executive director David
Dobkins, because non-native cheatgrass is overgrowing its
habitat. Nationally, sage grouse are down by anywhere from
30% to 80%; Idaho losses are 70-90%. Of the 39 songbirds
who nest in the Idaho sage, 37 species are declining, not just
the grouse, and Martha Hahn, Bureau of Land Management
director for Idaho, calls extirpating cheatgrass “a priority.”
Yet no one has ever stopped the spread of a thriving
plant species, no matter how much money has been spent in
the effort, and burning off cheatgrass can backfire. The accidental
Cox’s Well fire over Labor Day, 1996, ravaged 209,000
acres, killing any cheatgrass that happened to be there––and
annihilating at least 40 leks, or grouse nesting sites, according
to Idaho state game biologist Jack Connelly, for a net loss of at
least 4,000 sage grouse, plus songbirds, plus thousands of the
prairie dogs whom the burrowing owls need.
Hunters continue to shoot sage grouse, while ranchers
extirpate sage, plant hay grasses for beef cattle, and drain
aquifers to keep the introduced grasses growing. A record
5,038 birds representing 54 species were meanwhile discovered
in a June 1996 survey at the Idaho National Engineering
Laboratory, whose grounds include 890 square miles of undeveloped
sage, no hunters, and no cows.
Agriculture also threatens the grassland species of
upstate New York and New England. Conservationists have
long viewed the decline of farming in New England as an ecological
triumph, allowing pastures to revert to forest, while
trees maturing in yards and along streets add to a 33% increase
in forested habitat throughout the Northeast since 1970, and
have made heavily populated Connecticut the most forested of
the 50 states. The recovery of forest, however, according to
30 years of North American Breeding Bird Survey data, has
brought an 84% decline of upland sandpipers, who migrate
from southeastern Maine and Wisconsin to the pampas of
Argentina; a 97% decline of eastern meadowlarks; a 97%
decline of grasshopper sparrows, native to New York; and a
92% decline of field sparrows, native to Vermont.
“Of the entire suite of grassland-nesting birds in the
Northeast,” former Audubon magazine editor Les Line wrote
recently in The New York Times, “only the bobolink and savanna
sparrow appear to be holding their own. Other species in
jeopardy include the northern harrier, barn owl, short-eared
owl, horned lark, sedge wren, and Henslow’s sparrow.”
Says Connecticut College zoologist Robert Askins,
“Historical accounts and analysis of pollen deposits show that
open grasslands existed on the east coast at the time of
European settlement,” which “resulted from burning and agricultural
clearing by Indians. Natural disturbances, such as
wildfire and beaver activity, produced grasslands even before
Indians cleared the forest.”
Post-European settlement, cleared hayfields compensated
for the extirpation of beavers and loss of beaver meadow.
There are still about as many open fields in the Northeast as
there were when the Mayflower landed, and maybe more in the
upper midwest––but over the past 30 years, the chief method
of grass cultivation has shifted from twice-per-summer haymaking
to more frequent silage cutting. That means more nests
are pulverized or stripped of their cover, much more often.
Many neotropical migratory songbirds, losing nesting
habitat to deer in the U.S., are also losing winter habitat to
changes in Central and South American coffee growing technique,
the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported in midFebruary.
Traditional shaded coffee plantations harbor as many
as 150 bird species, center director Russell Greenberg told
Heather Dewar of Knight-Ridder News Service, more than any
other habitat but tropical rainforest. The densely planted highyield
“sun plantations” coming into vogue in Guatemala since
1978 accommodate barely half as many species. The
Guatemalan conversions of shade plantations into sun plantations
are often underwritten by U.S. aid, while the product,
cheap coffee, is for U.S. consumption. The species most
harmed include the wood thrush, down by a third since 1966,
and the Baltimore oriole, down 20% in 10 years. Coffee
brands are usually not labeled as to whether they are shadegrown
or sun-grown, but the more flavorful coffees are reportedly
likely to be shade-grown, perhaps excepting Starbucks,
which has not joined a covenant of shade-grown producers.
As if songbirds needed yet another threat, the eye
disease Micoplasma, seen in non-native eastern house finches
since 1993, has reportedly spread to American goldfinches,
and is moving west. Open questions are whether goldfinches,
common at backyard feeders, will infect other species, and
whether the infection will cross into the native western house
finches. The highly inbred eastern house finches are apparently
wholly descended from a small flock of western house finches
who escaped in New York City about 50 years ago.
Announced by researchers in February, “The remarkable
discovery that the Seychelles warbler has the ability to
control the sex of its offspring is a valuable reminder of how
important it is to save even the most obscure endangered
species because we never know what we’ll learn from them,”
Rare Center for Tropical Conservation president Roger F.
Pasquier wrote in a February 20 letter to the New York Times.
“The Seychelles warbler was discovered in the 1870s
on Marianne Island,” Pasquier continued, “as the island was
being cleared of forest. It was never seen there again. The
bird’s home is now 70-acre Cousin Island. Because most of the
island was given over to coconut production, the bird became
rare,” with just 50 surviving as of 1965. “The International
Council for Bird Preservation began a conservation program on
the island in 1968, removing coconuts and encouraging regeneration
of the native vegetation, on which the warbler depends.
The birds responded quickly,” Pasquier said, “and the population
reached 250,” the present number, “by 1975.”
Great blue herons, though federally protected, are
not endangered, and ARCO Petroleum and the Trillium
Corporation, a forestry-and-development firm, recently moved
to insure that they won’t become endangered in the northern
Puget Sound area by purchasing and protecting
the Point Roberts heron rookeries at
Cherry Point and Boundary Bay. The estimated
600 blue herons who nest at these sites
are an important part of the flock of 8,000 to
9,000 who live between Washington and
southeastern Alaska. About half of them frequent
the Georgia Straight, between
Vancouver Island and mainland British
Columbia, where logging and development
are associated with a gradual decline.
Private initiatives avoid the problems associated
with legally restricting habitat. At the
same time, private projects tend to focus on
popular species––and often the only habitat
for an endangered species is an area inaccessible
to private conservers. That necessitates
invoking the Endangered Species Act, if the
species is to be saved, stoking the national
furor over ESA reauthorization. An incident
sure to be used for anti-ESA propaganda purposes
erupted on March 6 in Barnstable,
Massachusetts, when USFWS told the town
council to move a traditional Fourth of July
fireworks celebration because an endangered
piping plover’s nest was found near the site
just before the celebration last year.
The potential risk was demonstrated, to the
horror of bird lovers worldwide, when an
errant New Year’s Eve skyrocket torched the
Abrolhos Nature Reserve on Redonda, in the Abrolhos Islands,
375 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. About 160 newly
hatched frigate birds were killed, and 200 eggs were
destroyed––a loss of 95% of the reserve’s protected frigate bird
population. A month later, in early February, a fire built by
tourists escaped control on Isla Larga, off Puerta Vallarta,
Mexico, killing 124 endangered bobo ducks and destroying
144 eggs. The USFWS was understandably eager to avoid such
a disaster within observation distance of Boston media and half
a dozen international conservation and animal protection groups
which have local offices.
But meeting the USFWS requirements, by taking the
fireworks four miles out to sea, could cost Barnstable $15,000.
“Over my dead body,” Barnstable councillor John
Boyle said. “We’re celebrating Independence Day because our
forefathers felt that government was getting overbearing, so
they stood up and did the right thing.”
Protecting the nests of both piping plovers and snowy
plovers, their also endangered western cousins, has paid off.
Nationally the piping plover population increased 7%, 1991-
1996, including a 27% rise along the Atlantic coast, their second
most important nesting habitat. The population in the
northern great plains nesting habitat declined 5%, possibly
because the same flooding that helped waterfowl washed out
plover nesting habitat.
The most successful plover conservation measure has
been simply setting up snow fence around nest sites to keep
people, vehicles, and four-legged predators away.
Killing to save species
More aggressive plover protection isn’t much more
popular with many animal defenders than it is with fireworks
fans. Golden Gate National Recreation Area superintendent
Brian O’Neill recently closed Ocean Beach, in San Francisco,
to off-leash dogs. SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino has
pledged to fight the closure in court. O’Neill moved to protect
a colony of about 70 snowy plovers. Dogs had run free at
Ocean Beach since Spanish mission days––and Avanzino
argues that they kept away raccoons and gulls.
“The dog ban is a symptom of bureaucratic incoherence
and disarray in protecting endangered species,” Avanzino
says. “The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has refused
to consider constructing a fence to protect the Ocean Beach
plovers. Astonishingly, the reason GGNRA officials gave for
rejecting this option was that it might encourage snowy plovers
to breed on Ocean Beach, and thereby result in more of these
rare birds frequenting our shores!”
Back east, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
touched off a furor in May 1996 by poisoning more than 2,000
sea gulls on Cape Cod to prevent predation of piping plover
fledglings, as the start of a projected four-year campaign, but
stopped it on January 31 this year under pressure from the
International Wildlife Coalition and at least four other groups.
Three days later the New Jersey Department of
Environmental Protection withdrew a plan to trap red foxes to
keep them from raiding the nests of the estimated 10 piping
plovers who may settle near Brigantine. After the Brigantine
council drafted an ordinance banning fox-trapping and feeding
on city land, NJDEP spokesperson David Jenkins said the
agency decided to “educate the public” instead––meaning an
effort to sell fox-killing.
“I just feel there hasn’t been enough research done to
determine right out that by eliminating the foxes the plover
population will come back,” Marine Mammal Stranding Center
director Bob Schoelkopf told Philadelphia Inquirer reporter
Amy S. Rosenberg. “There are other predators to the plover,”
such as gulls. “There’s a major problem with four-wheel drives
and bathers. All of that creates a problem,” but with beach driving
permits fetching Brigantine $180,000 a year in revenue,
complete habitat protection isn’t politically likely.
Similar politics delayed for two years the restoration
of brown pelican nesting habitat off Folly Beach, South
Carolina, as the Folly Beach County Park commissioners tried
to claim 85,000 cubic yards of sand promised to the pelicans by
the Army Corps of Engineers. The fight ended only after the
Corps of Engineers expanded a dredging project to give the
beach 50,000 cubic yards of sand while the pelicans will still
get the 85,000 cubic yards. “The pelican nesting area, known
as Bird Key Stono, was the largest brown pelican nesting area
in the country,” Explains Arlie Porter of the Charleston Post &
Courier, “before it disappeared when sand was dredged in the
Folly River to renourish Folly Beach.”
Some wildlife agencies are beginning to recognize
that trapping, shooting, and closing beaches may harm species
recovery more in the long run by generating public resistance,
than they do short-term good by eliminating a potential threat to
one particular species in one time and place.
Taking a cue from private conservation efforts, the
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is attempting
bribery to keep farmers from illegally shooting sandhill cranes,
of which about 12,000 reside in the state. Farmers tolerate
deer, who do an estimated $37 million worth of damage to corn
fields each year, because the losses are compensated at up to
$5,000 per incident from a fund maintained by hunting license
revenue. Accordingly, the WDNR has asked the legislature for
$321,000 over the next two years, with which to similarly compensate
for crane damage.
But the ornithology establishment and wildlife agencies
have been intertwined for more than a century, since scientific
birdwatching was chiefly done with a shotgun. After
encouraging huntable waterfowl, the next biggest bird-related
budget item for many wildlife agencies is breeding and stocking
non-native Chinese pheasants. Yet the National Audubon
Society, World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation,
Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Nature
Conservancy, all normally opposed to non-native introductions,
say nothing against pheasant programs––which have lost
money for years. The number of pheasant hunters in New York
state alone is down 81% since 1969. While pheasant programs
are often ballyhooed as hunter financed, the Fund for Animals
recently discovered a tax allocation of $178,000 that was spent
to improve a New York pheasant facility last year. One oldline
conservation group that has spoken out is the Delaware
Otsege Audubon Society, of south-central New York State,
which notes that this is apparently more money than was spent
to protect any of the 38 native New York birds who are listed as
“endangered, threatened, or of special concern.”
The major World Wildlife Fund initiative for birds
right now is distribution of a report called Collision Course,
distributed by a new Fatal Light Awareness Program, FLAP
for short. “The significance of lighted building collisions on
migratory populations cannot be underestimated,” according to
Collision Course. “Songbirds appear to be especially vulnerable,
in part due to lower altitude migration.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE has pointed out since inception
that cats, often fingered for the songbird decline, tend to be
blamed for killing birds who were already disabled by collisions
with windows, cars, power lines, and exposure to pesticides.
But are night-migrating birds really less likely to smack
into buildings if the lights are off?
Among the lethal bird “conservation” projects abroad
with the greatest chance of sending a negative message are an
attempt in South Africa by Cape Nature Conservation, the
Cape Bird Club, and the University of the Western Cape to
poison Indian crows, also called house crows. The crows
already outwitted an attempt to shoot them, learning to recognize
guns. The poisoning began at the Barcelona squatter
camp, near the Cape Town International Airport. What the
conservationists saw as extirpating a non-native competitor
with native species, the squatters probably saw as white people
killing black birds in front of black people whom the white people
likewise claim have no right to be there.
Another predictable fiasco came in the Pureora
Forest, near Taupo, New Zealand, last October, where the
Department of Conservation air-dropped 564 metric tons of carrot
shreds laced with the deadly poison Compound 1080, in
hopes of exterminating Australian possums. Introduced to New
Zealand by fur trappers, the possums are blamed for allegedly
damaging bird habitat and preying on the eggs and chicks of
some endangered species, such as the kokako. The air drop
supposedly did kill 95% of the possums and Norway rats at the
site, but also wiped out half the native robins and tomtits.
Surviving possums have become so poison-shy, regardless of
what bait is used, that the NZ/DOC is now sponsoring studies
to find a new luring technique. NZ/DOC science director John
Holloway insists that endangered birds including the kokako,
morepork, kaka, blue duck, weka, and kiwi were unharmed,
and will yet benefit.
The NZ/DOC was more careful in poisoning mice on
Mokoia Island, first removing 32 endangered wekas. Two
wekas died during five months in captivity. The survivors were
returned to the island, where they were introduced about 40
years ago, last December 6.
The poisoning began after NZ/DOC staff at the
Rimutaka Forest Park saw an increase in tui and native pigeons,
and the arrival of the first native falcon in 20 years, after an
unusually cold winter depressed possum numbers. Killing possums
and stoats is also credited with helping the mohua, or yellowhead,
to achieve a modest recovery on Mount Stokes, from
just 10 birds when resdiscovered on the mountain 12 years ago,
to about 30 now.
While some birds and mammals are
killed on behalf of other birds, birds are also
killed wholesale on purported behalf of fish.
Cormorants are especially often blamed for
declining fisheries, since they often find fish
where humans can’t, and habitually eat their
catch in plain view. The European Commission
is now drafting a proposal to rescind the protection
cormorants received in 1979 under Annex I
of the European Directive on the Conservation of
Wild Birds. Cormorants would retain protection
in Britain under the 1981 Wildlife and
Countryside Act––which does, however, permit
some licensed culling.
“Permission is rarely granted, and then
only for small numbers of birds,” according to
London Times countryside correspondent Michael
Unmollified by Liverpool John Moores
University research that shows cormorants have
nothing to do with the decline of fish stocks,
British anglers are clamoring for cormorants to be
reclassified as “vermin,” with an open season.
Similar sentiments are evident in North America,
especially around the Great Lakes and the St.
The Royal Society for the Protection of
Birds, while defending cormorants, is conspicuously
absent from efforts by Animal Concern of
Scotland to stop the annual slaughter of about
2,000 young gannets at Sula Sgheir rock, by 10
“men of Ness,” who are selected each year as an
honor by the villages of Lewis Island in the Outer
Hebrides. Carried on for 800 years, the killing was exempted
from the 1954 Protection of Birds Act, and is okay with the
RSPB, according to Caroline Davies of the London Daily
Telegraph, because “it is a tradition, it is not illegal, and is not
a conservation issue, as the gannet population is healthy and
But it is politically and ethically difficult for conservationists
to make a case against animal killing for purported
economic or cultural reasons, if they condone and even encourage
mass killing themselves, either to benefit favored species
or because hunting license sales help fund their projects.
Taking a different approach, Gibralter Ornithological
and Natural History Society general secretary John Cortes is
leading an effort to introduce Spanish ravens and red foxes to
The Rock to control yellow-legged gulls, now estimated at
35,000 and rising, compared with a human population of
27,000. The ravens are close relatives of the crows killed in
South Africa. The red foxes are close relatives of those the
National Audubon Society wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to annihilate wherever they prey upon piping plovers
and clapper rails. Cortes works on the theory, though, that
nature prefers a natural process to direct human intervention,
and that if human settlements weren’t in the way, the ravens
and foxes might be on The Rock already.