Can birds save the world?

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, if predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 26, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Can birds save the world?”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the National Audubon Society publicized the result of a seven-year study to determine what would happen to North American birds if the change in climate continues as predicted.

The startling conclusion is that by 2080, nearly half our bird species, 314 (588 were studied), would have a hard time finding the food and habitat they need. They probably would not adapt, since evolution normally needs more than 65 years. So they could become extinct.

“OK,” some people say, “big deal, I’ve never seen more than three kinds of birds anyway.”

That attitude was prevalent in the 1960s when eagles began producing eggs with shells so thin, the weight of the incubating parent crushed them.

“So what?” people said back then, especially if eagles made them and their lambs nervous.

The culprit was discovered to be DDT. And it was discovered to do nasty things to people as well. So you might say that birds saved the world from DDT (except it continues to be produced to control malaria).

Last month, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was keynote speaker at the banquet: “How Birds Can Save the World.”

Fitzpatrick’s premise is that birds are so many species of canaries in the coal mine. Or, to localize the analogy, so many sage-grouse in the oil patch. We should pay attention to what they are trying to tell us, before we hurt ourselves.

The Audubon report makes predictions based on two long-term, continent-wide citizen science efforts: the Christmas Bird Count (begun in 1900) and the Breeding Bird Survey (begun in 1966).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology itself is well-known for citizen science projects such as Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. But the one that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon is eBird (www.eBird.org).

People who enjoy birdwatching have learned over the last 10 years to put just a little extra effort into it by counting birds they see and entering their notes online. Scientists can now see where bird species go and when, as if they have radar running year round. The more people enter observations, the clearer the picture emerges. And population changes are clearer, too.

When bird numbers change, or populations move, it’s due to one or more changes in the species’ environment. Some can be directly attributed to people, such as building a subdivision over a burrowing owl colony, and some indirectly, like climate change causing nectar-producing flowers to bloom too early for migrating hummingbirds.

Back in the 1970s, saving the environment always seemed to mean doing without, like hippies living off the grid. To some extent, curbing our desire for items built with planned obsolescence, like the latest smartphone, would preserve a little more landscape.

But Fitzpatrick’s contention is that we can live smarter, rather than poorer, have our cake and eat it too, have our lifestyle and our birds.

We need creative people. For instance, I read 400,000 acres of California cropland is barren for lack of water this year. Yet power companies are stripping vegetation in the Mohave Desert to build arrays of solar panels. What if farmers rented out those barren fields for temporary solar installations?

There’s work being done on solar paving. Imagine a sunny city like Los Angeles being able to power itself from all its lesser used streets, rather than depending on the transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles.

What if we put as much effort as we put into getting man on the moon into finding ways for every part of the country to produce energy in a way that keeps birds happy and us healthy?

I’m not an engineer, and probably neither are you. There is a shortage of them in this country. How can we raise more engineers and research scientists?

Take kids birdwatching. No, this isn’t exactly one of Fitzpatrick’s fixes. It’s mine.

What are your kids doing on Saturday mornings? Watching cartoons and competing in athletics are all well and good. But what birdwatching does for children, and the rest of us, is to make us ask questions about the birds and their behaviors, to research, to communicate with others, and now, to search the eBird database.

When children develop these habits of curiosity through birds–or other disciplines–they begin to see themselves in the sciences, in engineering, in technology, in all those “hard” subjects. And we will have the creative minds we need.

Our local Audubon chapter, now age 40, will continue with its traditional field trips (open to accompanied children and recorded for eBird, of course), educational meetings and projects, habitat improvements, and conservation advocacy. But watch for those special opportunities to introduce your children, grandchildren or neighbor children to birds. Because birds can save the world.

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Breeding Bird Survey tracks changes

Grasshopper Sparrow

The Grasshopper Sparrow is a grassland bird seen on the Breeding Bird Survey in eastern Wyoming. Photo courtesy WIkipedia.

Published June 29, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Ears as important as eyes in early morning bird survey.”

2014 Update: The Breeding Bird Survey continues.

By Barb Gorges

It is not quiet before the dawn when it’s a summer morning in Wyoming.

Thirty minutes before sunrise June 8, where a gravel road crosses a canal a few miles west of Lingle, Dave Felley listened intently to distinguish the songs of western kingbirds, western meadowlarks and blue grosbeaks.

It was as if members of an avian orchestra were trying to outdo each other.

Felley’s job was to not only recognize the different bird songs but to count how many of each kind.

In the dim light by the side of newly sprouted corn fields, Felley used his ears more than his eyes to count the breeding birds at the first of 50 three-minute stops he would make on this 24.5-mile Breeding Bird Survey route.

Many species of birds have been well studied and counted, especially game birds and birds that pass through migration bottlenecks like shorebirds and hawks, said Felley.

In 1966, ornithologist Chandler Robbins devised the BBS to monitor breeding bird population trends across North America.

“What it’s best at is counting territorial adults,” Felley said. “Songbirds advertise their territory, so every singing bird is a breeding bird.”

About 2,500 professional biologists and skilled amateur birders across the country drive one or more of the nearly 3,000 Breeding Bird Survey routes once a year.

The Lingle route is one of two Felley, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services Field Office in Cheyenne, took on four years ago.

This year, for the first time, he joined the 25 percent of participants who conduct a survey as part of their job. Before, Felley did the surveys on his weekends.

He still has to review bird songs on his own time. “I did that last night,” he said. “I went through my CD (of bird songs) for the real tough ones.”

More than 90 bird species have been identified on the Lingle route in the 20 years since it was established, according to the BBS database. About 20 of those species show up every year.

How can someone distinguish that many songs? Felley’s philosophy is, “If you can remember the melody of a song, you can remember bird song.”

National-level BBS coordinators at the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland provided Felley with field data sheets giving start and stop times, a list of birds and a map of the route.

Route 92091 begins at 4:50 a.m. For Felley, that means leaving Cheyenne at 3:30 a.m.

If the weather is too rainy or windy by BBS standards, Felley has to bag it and try another day. The BBS asks that winds not exceed 12 mph, “except in those prairie states and provinces (like Wyoming) where winds normally exceed Beaufort 3: Leaves and small twigs in constant motion, light flag extended.”

Every effort is made to keep survey conditions exactly the same from year to year so that the number of birds is the only variable. The BBS works best if the same observer works the same route from year to year.

Humans and their activities are unpredictable, however. Felley’s pre-dawn stops were interrupted by several passing pickup trucks that potentially drowned out some bird songs.

Later, trains, tractors and highway traffic echoed through the North Platte River valley. Bawling calves competed with the less-than-bucolic sounds of center pivot irrigation and screaming domestic peacocks.

From year to year there are other changes: New fields plowed, different crops planted, more houses built, roads realigned.

At stop number 34, Felley carefully checked out a lone cottonwood. Last year it held a Lawrence’s goldfinch, a vagrant from the Southwest. Next year, Felley will remember stop number 41, where a northern bobwhite obligingly trotted down a roadside ditch as he pulled up and stayed to be counted.

The BBS is not a census. Rather, it is an index using breeding birds as indicators of population shifts, declines or increases.

By going online at http://www.mp2-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs, researchers and curious bird watchers can find a list of scientific articles written using BBS data, as well as the raw data itself, including that from the 80-plus routes in Wyoming.

Birders interested in running a BBS route can check with Wyoming’s coordinator, Department of Game and Fish non-game bird biologist Andrea Cerovski [now Orabona] at 307-332-2688.

By about the 25th stop, with the sun well up, you realize this is field work, not a bird watching field day. But for volunteers, the compensation comes in the enjoyment of birding on an early summer morning.

Felley’s last stop was east of Torrington where the land is still native prairie, too sandy and hilly to farm. On a fence post sat a grasshopper sparrow, hardly bigger than its namesake. It threw back its head with such abandon for every buzzy trill it gave, it was easy to believe birds too appreciate summer mornings.