December 31, 2009

It's for the birds

How did I miss this VERY impressive and thorough first State of the Birds report when it came out in March from a consortium of trusted sources? 

No matter what your political leanings, you should be able to look objectively at this information from Cornell's well-respected Lab of Ornithology, US Fish and Wildlfe Service, U.S. Geological Survey, North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, American Bird Conservancy, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, and The Nature Conservancy.

The most comprehensive bird census ever conducted, it found that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are either endangered, threatened, or in significant decline. "The State of the Birds" collected data from thousands of professional and citizen scientists spanning 40 years. It blames habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and climate change for the population drops, which are worst among U.S. grassland birds (40 percent), sea birds (39 percent) and virtually all birds in Hawaii, where 71 species are extinct.

It would have been even more dire without Rachel Carson. Her campaign to ban DDT was successful in reducing significant bird mortality due to the thinning and breakage of eggshells. Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans, and Bald Eagles have really rebounded.

However, this report states that in the U.S., approximately five billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually. A pesticide poisoning database documents more than 2,500 incidents, including 113 pesticides implicated in the deaths of more than 400,000 birds. Carbofuran, one of the few insecticides effective on soybean aphids, has been responsible for more than 20% of all incidents, and the deaths of more than 40,000 birds. Many of the pesticides highly toxic to birds have been eliminated from use in the U.S., but since they're used legally in Latin America, migratory birds are exposed to them during the winter.

(This includes a coal plant alert!) Mercury deposits in forests and on surface waters (as in the Chesapeake Bay and James River) from burning coal becomes concentrated in foods eaten by fish-eating birds and forest songbirds. Industrial chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, once linked to many poisonings, have been regulated and largely cleaned up, but new chemicals such as PBDE fire-retardants are emerging as contaminants that accumulate in plants and wildlife, with unknown effects on birds and humans.

The report "reveals troubling declines of bird populations during the past 40 years—a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems. At the same time, we see heartening evidence that strategic land management and conservation action can reverse declines of birds. This report calls attention to the collective efforts needed to protect nature’s resources for the benefit of people and wildlife. . . .

We have lost more than half of our nation’s original wetlands, 98% of our tallgrass prairie, and virtually all virgin forests east of the Rockies. Since the birth of our nation, four American bird species have gone extinct, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. At least 10 more species are possibly extinct.. . .

The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations. . . .

Other amazing facts from the report:
  • Only about 2% of the tallgrass prairie that existed in the early 1800s still remains. 
  • Development increased from 15 million to 60 million acres during 1945–2002 and is still increasing exponentially.
  • Decades of unnatural fire suppression have created fuel for more intense fires, dramatically increasing the acreage burned in recent years (e.g., 9.8 million acres burned in 2006). Historically, natural fires burned large areas of some forest types annually, but were less intense. These fires were essential for the health of forests and their wildlife.
  • The U.S. harvests 21.2 billion cubic feet of timber from forests annually. Harvest increased by 40% during 1950–1980, but has declined since 1985.
  • More than half of all timber comes from southeastern forestlands, 87% of which are privately owned. Only a small portion of timber originates from federal lands, but important forest types such old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska remain available for logging.