On September 9, the fifth State of the Birds report assessing the bird population was issued. Since 2009 a report has been prepared annually by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, whose members are drawn from conservation groups and government agencies. Because this is the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, the 2014 report was written with an acute awareness of her and her kind’s sad end.
Martha’s story serves as a stark reminder of how quickly a species can become extinct. In the middle of the 19th century, migrating passenger pigeons darkened the sky; the species numbered in the billions. But a few decades of frenzied hunting reduced the population so quickly and drastically that extinction was inevitable. Living in the safety of the Cincinnati zoo, Martha alone was left.
And in 2014 what is the state of the birds? Not good. The population of many species is in steep decline or has been significantly reduced. Bird habitat destruction has been widespread, especially in the arid western states and in the mid-western grasslands. Coastal and shorebirds have not fared well either. The 2014 report contains a Watch List of 233 native species whose population loss requires prompt action. And there is a list of 33 common species, backyard birds like grackles and chimney swifts, in danger of becoming rare.
A bird’s life is fraught with perils and survival is always uncertain. Consider, for instance, the red knots, those intrepid sojourners who migrate from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic in the spring and stop to feast on horseshoe crab eggs on Delaware Bay. By the time they arrive on our shores, these sandpipers have lost half their body weight. Tired and hungry, they need to feed in a hurry. They have about a month to fatten up before continuing on to their breeding grounds, where the extra body fat may have to sustain them for a while longer. So they don’t have the luxury of exploring the terrain for food. Delaware Bay must offer them a reliable and abundant source of food, which it does, unless we’ve “harvested” the horseshoe crabs for our own purposes (fishing bait and pharmaceuticals). When we interfered with the availability of crab eggs, the red knot population, already under stress from habitat loss, decreased alarmingly.
But the news is not all bad. The State of the Birds 2014 reiterates over and over again that conservation works. It once worked for bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Not long ago, New Jersey banned horseshoe crab “harvesting,” and if neighboring states follow suit, the red knots may have a chance.
We are better equipped for conservation than ever before. We have more data about birds (Breeding Bird Survey, eBird, and the Christmas Bird Count are crucial here) and we have better technology to track and study them. What we need are government policies that ensure greater protection against habitat loss and other environmental threats.
We bird watchers are numerous and tenacious. Conservation works. Let’s make sure it happens.