Monday, September 23, 2019

A Story that Needs to Be Told (and Retold) . . . to Initiate Action

Black-crowned Night Herons are fairly consistent inhabitants at several locations at Standing Rush; a couple have been lurking on an island of woody debris in the West Marsh lately, so I was somewhat prepared -- this individual posed
long enough late last Thursday afternoon for two images: this one and a second (better composed, but very blurry)

Last week (Thursday), an article just published in the journal Science spilled almost redundantly into the mainstream media. Unlike so many biological or environmental subjects which are so often relegated to subtle margins of second sections and/or carried only by "niche" publications, news coverage of this story seemed as sweeping as the original title was bold: Billions of North American birds have vanished.

Greater Yellowlegs in last Thursday's late afternoon sun 
In literally a minute of web searching, here are a handful of some of the largest outlets' respective renditions:

This list could (and does) go on . . . and on. If you haven't caught up with specifics of these findings, pick your poison. No matter the source, the numbers are same: an exhaustive study recently completed concludes that nearly 30% of the entire population of birds (all environments, across all species) have disappeared from the skies over North America in under five decades. That means that in my lifetime, where there would have been four birds -- say in 1975 -- there are now fewer than three (see my caption on the top photo from my most recent post below).

American Bittern -- camouflaging as brown
cattails -- stands in vertical attention in
Standing Rush sun 
I stumbled onto the abstract of the primary source to this media blitz on my phone last Thursday afternoon following a full day in the marsh (escorting surveyors as we gathered site-wide elevation data). I have to admit, it really took the wind out of my sails. I had already slipped off my stealtoes and changed into tennis shoes for the drive home, but I felt compelled to make one more lap around the West Marsh, specifically to seek out anything and everything I could find on the wing.

The images herein capture the diversity that I could gather (in focus) with my camera in one 45 minute shotgun tour on the MULE. I needed the reassurance of seeing some birds, but I also still needed to get home in time for dinner!

Here are the other birds that I witnessed, but did not photograph (with estimated quantities in parentheses): Brown-headed Cowbird (200); Red-winged Blackbird (150); Great Egret (20); Morning Dove (20); Mallard (20); Wood Duck (16); Great Blue Heron (10); Blue-winged Teal (7); Blue Jay (7); Double-crested Cormorant (6); Bald Eagle (5); Trumpeter Swan (5); Common Gallinule (5); American Coot (4); Black-crowned Night Heron (4); Killdeer (4); Greater Yellowlegs (3); Lesser Yellowlegs (2); Green Heron (2); Caspian Tern (2); American Bittern (1); Belted Kingfisher (1); Red-tailed Hawk (1); Marsh Wren (1).

Trumpeter Swans -- once completely eliminated from Ohio
-- are now a common site at Standing Rush
So, if my math is on-point, that breaks down to twenty-three species and approximately 496 individuals. I can never help but wonder what I didn't see on a quick pass like this. My routine when time is limited is to drive for 30 seconds and then sit for 10 minutes. I have a fairly trained eye, but I would not put myself in the "avid" category. Plus, my ear is really untrained (that is, I can't ID much by vocalization like the true birders can).

On one hand, this is a lot of birds. But dare to imagine if there were another 30% or even 50% more? -- even if not in terms of species diversity but in relative abundance?

Three BILLION birds lost?! That's a staggering number. That's more than 5-times the human population of all of North America. And based on the findings, it's not just the uncommon birds that are struggling. Or the birds that rely on forests. Or grasslands. Or big birds or small birds. This mass extraction of life is broad and sweeping and seems to have no prejudice.

Three (not four) Great Blue Herons keeping vigilant watch on muskrat hutches Thursday afternoon

From my perspective, the primary questions introduced through this scientific revelation should be: How do we, as individuals and as a society, respond to stressors on our planet and its resources? Do we resign ourselves to denial or maybe as dangerously to acceptance and complacency ('the world is just changing' . . . 'numbers naturally ebb and flow' . . . 'this is just part of the natural process')? Do we simply allow this to be a headline in a single day's news cycle? Or do we recognize that the power of positive change truly is in our hands?

This scientific research and the systematically vetted conclusions it draws provide an incredible opportunity -- or perhaps more accurately, billions and billions of opportunities to alter countless decisions made each day. Rather than discard these troubling trends as myth or slip into a state of despair, consider what individual steps we can take to collectively reverse a trend. (We have bald eagles and trumpeter swans as feathered success stories.) But ultimately, this story has to do with a lot more than birds.

Individual Decisions that Help Birds (Other Wildlife, and the Planet)
  • Make windows safer (consider decals or contrasting tape);
  • Keep cats indoors (free-range domestic felines account for an amazing amount of mortality);
  • Look for habitat improvement opportunities (literally) in your yard -- plant native plants;
  • Reduce -- or wherever feasible, eliminate -- chemicals on your yard;
  • Drink shade-grown coffee (helps protect critical forest habitat);
  • Introduce someone new to the magic of birds and birding -- especially kids;
  • Support local conservation initiatives taking place at the community level;
  • Reduce consumption and waste wherever and whenever feasible -- use less plastic;
  • Don't be overwhelmed that it all has to happen all at once -- every step in a positive direction is positive . . . simple steps can become habits;
  • Click here for a more exhaustive list, not only to help the birds but to generally be better stewards of our planet . . . as has been said, "There is no Plan B."