Bird Conservation in the 21st Century
Tom Leskiw reviews The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation, by Daniel J. Lebbin, Michael J. Parr, and George H. Fenwick
The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation is an ambitious publication that, according to the publisher, is “the most authoritative book on bird conservation in the Americas ever published.” Offering the first comprehensive status and threat analysis for habitats in the United States, Bird Conservation also includes information on international bird conservation, and how interested laypersons can contribute to the effort to save birds. Although a wealth of information is presented, all three author-scientists write for the lay audience and jargon is kept to a minimum.
Twelve “Birdscapes”—habit types such as Wetlands, Western Arid Lands, and the Marine Environment—are discussed in detail and include representative sites deemed Important Bird Areas within each birdscape. The “digital vista” artwork that introduces each birdscape is technique I’d not previously encountered: photos and illustrations of birds digitally cut-and-pasted onto an artist’s rendering of the landscape. Initially, I found the images a bit jarring. However, such an amalgam depicts the habitat as it’s experienced by most of us in these days of the ubiquitous human footprint. The Southern Arid Lands birdscape, for instance, contains a suite of birds on a hillside above a verdant golf course, pond, condominiums, and earth-moving equipment. One nit-pick: in the Southern Forest birdscape, the brown-headed nuthatch’s head, back, and tail are chopped off, inadvertently inserting a “What bird is this?” ID quiz.
Many of us are well-acquainted with threats to the health of bird populations: deforestation and increased fire in the neotropics, mining, logging, conversion of native habitat for biofuel production, acid rain, pesticides, climate change, etc. The authors also identify a number of threats that have received less media scrutiny: harvesting of peat for fuel and mushroom farms, marine debris and plastics, long-line fisheries, horseshoe crab overharvesting, and proliferation of communication towers for digital TV and cell phones. The discussion of threats to birds such as communication towers, acid rain, wind turbines, and power lines are poignant, for they clearly show that even those who profess to care about birds are also a part of the problem.
The litany of threats to bird life is so extensive that the reader may start to teeter on the brink of hopelessness but for the fact that the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is helmed by creative, compassionate scientists whose goal is to move beyond gloom-and-doom to offer concrete, real-world solutions. This, I believe, is the strength of the book: the laying out of an achievable plan for bird conservation.
Of course, as Bird Conservation details, any international, comprehensive plan that guides and coordinates efforts in two hemispheres is composed of many smaller, local actions that, in some instances, benefit a single species or suite of birds. An example of a past successful effort implemented by ABC and its colleagues is improved habitat for the golden-plumed parakeet, a denizen of the Andes, which depends on palm trees for nest holes. Some residents of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru harvest palm fronds by chopping down trees for Palm Sunday (Easter) celebrations. Local conservation organizations Fundación ProAves and Fundación de Conservacion Jocotoco, along with ABC, have worked with churches and communities to replace palm fronds with more-sustainable alternatives. Another example of a successful program was spearheaded by the organization ECOAN: providing Peruvian communities with fuelwood plantations and fuel-efficient heating stoves, in order to lessen impacts on high-elevation Polylepsis woodlands.
Sample "Important Bird Area" page spread: Florida Keys and Dry
Tortugas. Click image to view full-sized sample in PDF format.
A major focus of the ABC’s efforts is the protection or enhancement of staging (feeding) areas that play a critical role in the long-distance migration of shorebirds. As discussed in the “Threats” section, millions of horseshoe crabs once came ashore to spawn each spring on beaches along the Mid-Atlantic coast, their eggs fueling the long-distance migration of at least six species of shorebirds that include red knot, ruddy turnstone, and semi-palmated sandpiper. Starting in the 1980s, horseshoe crabs began to be harvested at unsustainable levels to bait eel and conch traps. Between 1990 and 1998, adult horseshoe crab populations declined by up to 90 percent in Delaware Bay. As a result, the rufa subspecies of red knot and semi-palmated sandpiper populations have declined by over 50 percent and 70-80 percent, respectively. The ABC and other groups successfully fought for state-wide moratoria on horseshoe crab harvesting in Delaware and New Jersey in 2006 (although the harvesting ban was overturned in Delaware in 2007). In 2009, Maryland began to require fishermen to harvest two male crabs for every female, to increase the number of eggs laid. More importantly, the development of sealable bait bags has cut the amount of crab needed as bait in half. Scientists continue to develop a synthetic alternative to the use of horseshoe crab for bait.
WatchList birds are species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as federally threatened, plus additional species that, without action to stem their population decline, may warrant future listing. Bird Conservation includes species accounts for all 212 WatchList species, with information on each species’ population trend, significant threats, current conservation actions, additional actions needed, and global population estimate, as well as the percentage of the population that breeds in the United States.
To have so much information available in a single reference is a boon for the eternally curious. For instance, recently I was working on an essay that detailed my inability to see a Henslow’s sparrow, despite searching in six states over a two-decade period. I better understood the sparrow’s precarious position after reading that its global population—of which 95 percent breed in the U.S.—is estimated at a mere 79,000 individuals.
Avid readers of works with a more literary, rather than scientific, focus may ask, “But where are the stories?” Because of the wealth of information presented, it may take a little digging, but there are stories here.
For example: the aforementioned horseshoe crab overharvest. The near-collapse of this egg resource is critical to the health of “over one-million shorebirds [who] time their spring migration to feast on the crab’s eggs, increasing their weight by as much as 50% before leaving for their arctic nesting grounds,” according to the authors. The red knot’s long-distance travels are perhaps the most impressive among this group, annually making a non-stop 5,000-mile journey from the southern tip of South America to Delaware Bay. There, it lingers for several weeks, gorging on horseshoe crab eggs that fuel its home stretch: 1,000 nonstop miles to its Arctic breeding grounds. The fossil record tells us that horseshoe crabs very similar to those of today lived 350 million years ago—100 million years before dinosaurs appeared on Earth. Scientists believe that this egg-bird relationship was forged about 12,000 years ago. Without the replenishment of energy reserves using the bounty of horseshoe crab eggs, intercontinental flight of the rufa subspecies of the red knot’s would not be possible.
The book’s state-by-state conservation suggestions are a valuable aspect, as well. Among the Conservancy’s “Key Actions” proposed for Kentucky is an increase in early successional habitat for Henslow’s sparrow and golden-winged warbler. Sometimes, in our zeal to protect any remaining natural habitat, we overlook the obvious: “storms, beavers, and infrequent forest fires create natural disturbances that “reset” forest succession. Early successional meadows and shrub-lands provide habitat for a different community of birds than do mature forests.” To illustrate, it’s believed that John James Audubon only saw a chestnut-sided warbler once—as it prefers second-growth forests and disturbed areas.
Additional key actions proposed in the book include restoring natural fire regimes to longleaf pine areas of seven southeastern states and, for Vermont, the strengthening of partnerships with groups in Hispaniola to conserve wintering areas for Bicknell’s thrush. The latter suggestion underscores the need for international partnerships if we are to successfully conserve “our” neotropical migrants—many of which spend as much, or more, of the year in their winter home.
It’s encouraging to note that conditions are vastly improved for some species, for whom the “good old days” weren’t so great. A dramatic uptick in numbers of Aleutian cackling geese, black-vented shearwaters, Xantus’s murrelets, rock ptarmigan, tufted puffins, and some other seabirds has resulted from the removal of introduced foxes, rats, goats, and feral cats from islands off Alaska, California, and Mexico.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. Bird Conservation is a valuable reference for anyone who writes about the natural world or has even a passing interest in birds. The inclusion of a subject index, selected bibliography, selected internet resources, and an introduction to reporting one’s sightings via eBird—a citizen science effort sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—all add to the book’s utility.
I found no major flaws in the book. The numerous color photos are no doubt a factor in its $45 list price, but they serve as a welcome addition to the textual information. Nearly all the photos are extremely high quality, the only disappointment being a minuscule dot trying to pass for an Audubon’s shearwater on page 255, for example.
Fittingly, a photo of four red knots—shorebirds on the wing—graces the cover of Bird Conservation. That only one of the four is in sharp focus seems to me a metaphor for the challenges that lie ahead. We’ve accumulated a track record of restoring the population of a select number of the planet’s 10,000 species of birds. On the other hand, the challenges are immense and grow each year. In the Americas, 498 of the 4,400 species are considered as threatened with extinction. In the book’s preface, George Fenwick calls for a new era of “citizen conservation,” a plea for those who care about the future of birds to begin—or increase—their involvement. It’s crunch time and the jury’s still out: Do we possess the creativity, political will, and focus to rise to the occasion?
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