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Threats to birds endanger our own connection with nature

Development, cats and pesticides spell trouble for many species in Washington and beyond.
A dark-eyed junco in Seattle.

A dark-eyed junco in Seattle. Tom Talbott/Flickr

If you stop and think about it, birds are our most direct connection to nature. Their songs delight us and their journeys capture our imagination. Birds are the wildlife we interact with the most. But that bond is breaking. Each year more and more of them succumb to a host of threats: pesticides, the loss of habitat, climate change, and the biggest urban threat of all, cats. It's a bittersweet tale about their sounds and their plight.

Warblers and other migrants from the neotropic zone, which stretches from southern Florida southward through the Americas, flew a thousand miles without food or rest to find this urban rest stop. Now they joust for territory with song sparrows, chickadees and robins. Strolling through West Seattle's Longfellow Creek, wildlife biologist and international birder Suzanne Tomassi exclaims, “There's so many birds I'm hearing right now.” The creek and green belt are a bird mecca; running water, native plants and trees, and a bit of security. Tomassi hears a junco, then a warbler, a common yellow throat. “They're all here at once.”

The feeding and nesting this creek and green belt provide are critical to bird survival, she says. “Because if you're a bird and you're flying over an urban area and you get to that green patch that's going to be the opportunity to refuel for the rests of your trip.”

Refuge for birds can be found in any urban area, big or small, that offers undeveloped land with tree cover, chemical-free plants and grasses. Birds are under constant assault with the loss of habitat, pesticides, climate change and the biggest urban threat of all, according to numerous studies, cats.

It's simpler than you think to draw birds to your own habitat, says Tomassi, but if cats are near, the birds are in jeopardy. “I love cats. I have cats of my own. I would never let them outdoors because the truth is they eat wildlife and they eat it more prolifically than we've ever thought.” One project out of the University of Georgia, says Tomassi, put critter cams, tiny cameras, on cat collars that showed them killing much more than previously thought

Providing birds with feeders and water, cautions Tomassi, isn't compatible with cats. “It's heart-wrenching when the little gold finch you've been watching for a month ends up dead or your cat brings it to you.” According to the American Bird Conservancy, the largest declines in birds nationwide are among those species who spend a lot of time on the ground: the white-throated sparrow, eastern meadowlark, and northern bobwhite.

As for migratory birds, it's potentially worse. Many migrants will stop off in an unfamiliar area to search for a bit of food to get them through the next leg of their journey, and become vulnerable to cats. As forests and grasslands continue to be degraded, birds are forced into sub-prime real estate in order to survive, says the bird conservancy. The real estate often includes cats.

Relish the sounds of birds in this not-so-silent spring and you may assume all is well. But in Washington state, many are endangered or under threat: sand hill cranes and snowy plovers, greater sage grouse, American and Brown pelican, hawks and the marbled murrelet, among others. Certain species of sparrows are being monitored. Seattle Audubon's birdweb.org has more details. 

When Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," was published more than 50 years ago, it generated a storm of controversy about the use of chemical pesticides. DDT was the most prominent. Carson showed the link between spraying for pests and the death of robins and salmon. Since then new generations of chemicals have been formulated for agricultural and urban use. The most pernicious, says American Bird Conservancy Pesticide Program Manager, Cynthia Palmer, are neonicatinoids. Neonics, as they are called, are the most widely used insecticide in the world and are found in nearly 600 insecticide products, including flea collars and fruit and vegetable seedlings grown in soil containing neonics. “A single kernel of corn coated with the chemical can kill a songbird,” says Palmer, "while as little as one-tenth of a coated seed per day during the egg laying season, can impair reproduction.” The American Bird Conservancy reviewed 200 industry studies obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and found levels of neonics in surface and ground water already high enough to kill aquatic invertebrates, upon which so many birds depend.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 7, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

"But in Washington state, many are endangered or under threat: sand hill cranes and snowy plovers, greater sage grouse, American and Brown pelican, hawks and the marbled murrelet, among others."

Sand Hill Cranes visit Washington State as migrants. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "In general, Sandhill Cranes are numerous and their populations have been increasing by about 5 percent per year since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They score an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not considered a species of concern in the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan."

The Snowy Plover is, also, not resident to Washington. It is listed as a species of "least concern" conservation-wise by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Greater Sage Grouse is resident to eastern parts of Washington. It is listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN.

The American Pelican is a migrant to Washington. According to Cornall Lab of Ornithology, "Populations of American White Pelicans have rebounded from lows in the mid-twentieth century and have grown at roughly 5 percent per year since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas estimates a global breeding population in excess of 120,000. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is assigned a status of Moderate Concern."

Washington is not considered part of the Brown Pelican's range. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "Brown Pelicans are a living symbol of how successful wildlife conservation can be. In 1970, Brown Pelicans were federally listed as endangered. The plight of pelicans and other species led to a ban on DDT in 1972 and a reduction in endrin use, allowing pelican numbers to rise. By 1985, numbers along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf coasts had recovered enough to delist those populations. Though the Brown Pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, they had to be reintroduced to that state in a program that lasted from 1968 to 1980. The species reached pre-pesticide numbers by the late 1990s and was fully delisted in 2009."

More threatened than these birds: journalistic integrity.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, May 7, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Just curious, BlueLight, did you even click on the link associated with the quote with which you take issue? Doing so will land you on a page which features a "species of concern list" for the state. That also lists federal status. They tend to be very different. So citing national and international sources in an attempt to refute that quote is misleading.

What was that about integrity?

Tuck

Posted Wed, May 7, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

That link lists the Brown Pelican as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species list. The Brown Pelican was delisted in 2009. http://www.fws.gov/ventura/newsroom/release.cfm?id=49

That link lists the Sandhill Crane as "endangered" in Washington State. Insofar as Sandhill Cranes visit the state only as migrants, perhaps this listing was a tool for grant money?

Integrity, Tuck? Don't believe everything you hear from a non-profit. Nor, apparently, a journalist.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, May 7, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't think that keeping cats indoors is the most important thing. I recommend a cat fence, if necessary. Cats need fresh air and light, just like we do. I think more importantly, there should be more focus on how sound pollution (and air pollution) are affecting the birds, both resident and migrant.

Posted Wed, May 7, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Some cats just love to go out - others not so. I had a cat whose home range was about 15 feet from the back door, another that climbed all over the place. Cat fences are a good idea - if you want the cat to remain a nomad though, this is the best item I've read about for keeping cats from killing birds. I think it works because when cats go to run the bib hits their front feet and they don't like that. Not sure about the connection with running from dogs(?)

http://catgoods.com/

Lily32

Posted Thu, May 8, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

So, BlueLight, your position is that because they are not year round resident species they deserve no protections when their status here is in doubt? Many of those non-residents migrate for good reasons, such as breeding and feeding. If individual states drop the ball on all such species, they'll quickly be "re-endangered" at the federal level, too.

As for angling for grant money, sure, people get grant money for studying listed species. The actual listing is per state code, and is determined by bureaucrats who are paid a fixed salary with tax dollars regardless of what listing determinations they make, not by grant money:

http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=232-12-297

If you have suggestions for improving the process to further eliminate the personal agendas of scientists that create the distortions you perceive, by all means, let's see them.

Tuck

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