Putting Some Conservation Things Into Perspective

Nov 26, 2019

A recent news article, “Three Billion Birds Gone,” got my attention.  According to the American Bird Conservatory, “ In less than a single human lifetime, 2.9 billion breeding adult birds have been lost from the United States and Canada, across every ecosystem and including familiar birds: The Dark-eyed Junco has lost an incredible 175 million individuals from its population. The White-throated Sparrow has lost 93 million. Of the nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90% came from just 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows.” This, the article says, is a “biodiversity crisis.”

These findings were reported in the world's leading scientific journal, Science, by researchers at seven institutions. https://abcbirds.org/3-billion-birds/ 

The article continues: “Although the study did not investigate causes, scientists have identified that habitat loss is the biggest overall driver of bird declines. Habitat loss occurs when land is converted for agriculture, development, resource extraction, and other uses. Habitat degradation is a second cause of losses. In this case, habitat doesn't disappear outright but becomes less able to support birds.” The article then says: “They (scientists) talk about loss of habitat due to farming and development, pesticides and climate change being the reasons.”

There are 657 million acres of wildlands in the US.  Some are managed by state and federal government agencies. Others are privately owned. About 9% of the wildlands are in the wildlands-urban interface, where cities, suburbs, forests and parks are adjacent to each other. Very good psychological research shows that not only birds and animals need wildlands, but we humans also do. https://positivepsychology.com/positive-effects-of-nature/ We definitely should be working on saving wildlands and increasing them, as well as creating more parks and recreation areas which are good for wildlife and people. 

The three billion birds gone article got me wondering if this article paints the whole picture, or it’s another eco-crisis that’s being used to add to the swarm of crisis news that fills so much of news today  that helps academics get funding for research, as  I have talked about before on the Outdoor Wire. https://www.theoutdoorwire.com/features/8eaec676-92b9-45e7-80be-f9f73f130e3d 

I like birds. I grew up on an island in Lake Erie where swarms of birds passed through on annual migrations. And’ I’ve taught ecology at four major universities and I hold a USFWS Master Permit for banding birds. I earned my Master Permit studying red-winged blackbirds along the shores of Lake Erie, and working with Dr. James Ludwig on how DDT was causing very significant losses of herring and ring-billed gulls in the Great Lakes. https://www.michiganradio.org/post/bellow-islands-herring-gulls-helped-get-ddt-banned 

Losing three billion birds in North America is noteworthy but it’s not something new. When passenger pigeons became extinct, 3-5 billion birds of a single species disappeared from North America. Some passenger pigeons were killed by people hunting for personal food, but loss of nesting habitat (forests) and commercialization of hunting were what killed off the species, as well as their inability adapt to habitat changes as forests were cut down.  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/58678/10-facts-about-extinct-passenger-pigeon


This is the Information Age when most people are attached to electronic screens rather than spending more time in nature to nourish the soul, as well as understand what is really going on in the world around us. I came across another recent study done by the Associated Press reporting that nearly two-thirds of Americans say they often come across one-sided information and about 60% say they regularly see conflicting reports about the same set of facts from different sources. https://apnews.com/c762f01370ee4bbe8bbd20f5ddf2adbe     

So, while a three billion bird decline is definitely significant, as I looked for more supporting information about this claim I found a National Wildlife Federation article that said that  42% of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species. https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Threats-to-Wildlife/Invasive-Species   Okay, now we have a scientific conflict going on -- habitat versus invasive species.

I don’t know about you, but where I live, we have a number of invasive species of birds and insects.  I’m reminded of this daily as flocks of Eurasian collar doves and starlings swarm and fire ants are trying to take over my yard. Fire ants are found as far north as Virginia https://www.desertusa.com/insects/fire-ants2.html and aren’t native. They were introduced in the 1930’s from South America. https://www.pestworld.org/news-hub/pest-articles/red-imported-fire-ants-101/ And when these red and black devils move into an area, they claim it and if you are bitten by one it makes bee stings look puny, and when fire ants set up shop, native insects vanish. 

Invasive species can and do damage habitat and they also can out compete with native species. This is a brief synopsis about some significant invasive species that definitely are having a negative effect on native species. 

Burmese pythons – Huge 10’ long pythons are one of many invasive species that have become established in the US.  Imported as pets and then released into habitat where they could thrive, tens of thousands of pythons roam the Florida Everglades and nearby areas including Big Cypress National Preserve. They are definitely larger than native species.  It’s hard to know their precise number, but raccoon populations in that area have declined and  bobcat populations declined more than 87%. Deer and birds are also declining in that area.  https://time.com/longform/florida-python-hunters/  

English Sparrows --  Native species of sparrow are decreasing, the report says. What about English or house sparrows? They are one of the most common birds in North America and they came from Europe  -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_sparrow You bet they can and do compete with native sparrows.

Starlings -- There are over 200 million starlings found from Alaska to New Mexico. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/overview Starlings were purposefully introduced from Europe to North America in 1890–1891 by the American Acclimatization Society, an organization dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for cultural and economic reasons. This happened as some people decided all birds mentioned by William Shakespeare should be in North America (the starling is mentioned in Henry IV, Part 1. A hundred of them were released from New York's Central Park. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starling Now they swarm in huge flocks, competing with native species for nesting habitat and food.

Eurasian Collared Dove --  In 1974, fewer than 50 Eurasian Collared Doves escaped captivity in Nassau, Bahamas. From the Bahamas, they spread to Florida, and are now found in nearly every state in the US, as well as in Mexico.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_collared_dove   Collared doves are competing with the native doves (Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, White-winged Dove and Common Ground Doves) for food and nesting habitat, as every seed that is eaten by a collared dove is not available for any other dove, bird or animal. Collared doves are not protected by state or federal law. Let me rephrase that. Currently in New Mexico there are no closed seasons, bag limits and no hunting license is required. https://www.backcountrychronicles.com/eurasian-collared-doves-no-limit/  They are edible, by the way. https://www.backcountrychronicles.com/dove-mushroom-gravy-recipe/ 

Pigeons --  Pigeons are considered the number one pest bird problem in the world.  The pigeon is not native to North America, either.  They were introduced into North America in the early 1600’s.  City buildings and window ledges mimic the rocky cliffs originally inhabited by their ancestors in Europe. Pigeons are found to some extent in nearly all urban areas around the world. It is estimated that there are 400 million pigeons worldwide and that the population is growing rapidly together with increased urbanization. The population of pigeons in New York City alone is estimated to exceed 1 million birds. They love loss of habitat of native species! https://www.ovocontrol.com/pigeon-facts-figures They are also considered a health hazard and destroy habitat. 

Pigeons and doves are distributed everywhere on Earth, except for the driest areas of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and its surrounding islands, and the high Arctic. They have colonized most of the world's oceanic islands, reaching eastern Polynesia and the Chatham Islands in the Pacific; and Mauritius, the Seychelles and Réunion in the Indian Ocean, as well as in the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.

Wild pigs and boars -- https://feralhogs.extension.org/history-of-feral-hogs-in-the-united-states/ Wild hogs  and feral hogs that can weigh up to 500 pounds were brought to the US from Europe dating back to the 1400’s. Today there are now 6-9 million found in at least 38 states. Texas has at least three million of them. Check out this video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhLJ1qWlNp4&feature=youtu.be  


There were no pigs in the US when Columbus arrived, so some folks later brought some from Europe for food. Later feral boars found in Europe were brought here and released into areas for hunting. Wild boars are smart. They broke out of pens and fences and headed for open territory on farms and natural areas, some even have moved into suburban areas.  Domestic pigs also escaped and connected with wild hogs. Have you ever seen an area where wild pigs have set up shop? They dig up, eat and destroy plants. 

Nutria -- Out in California, where laws were recently passed banning trapping and people wearing fur, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/style/fur-ban-california.html there is an invasion of the huge aquatic rodent nutria or coypu. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/02/nutria-spreading-california-wetlands-louisiana-swamps-spd/   

These 16-22-pound web-footed muskrat-like animals live in burrows alongside stretches of water, and feed on river plant stems. Nutria came from South America and are now found in nearly all 49 mainland states. They have more than one litter a year and they are hungry. This results in severely reducing overall wetland biomass resulting in conversion of wetland to open water.  They are raising havoc over crops like rice in the California central valley, and its costing millions to control them. http://agnetwest.com/five-steps-to-eliminate-nutria-threat/ I seriously doubt that it’s possible to completely eradicate nutria. Nutria incidentally, are edible and their furs can be used in clothing. So, people who ban all furs and trapping and eat just veggies may find themselves now competing with nutria for their food. And if they had let trappers trap nutria, this would have saved millions of dollars. 

Carp -- when I was growing up on an island in Lake Erie, we used to go out and shoot German carp with archery to help control populations taking over the Great Lakes.  German carp are  nothing compared their relatives, Asian Carp that were brought from Asia to be raised on fish farms https://www.nps.gov/miss/learn/nature/ascarpover.htmhttps://www.nps.gov/miss/learn/nature/ascarpover.htm  are overwhelming many lakes and river and are working their way into the Great Lakes. Asian carp have been known to dominate entire streams , effectively pushing out the native species.

These are just a few examples of how invasive species affect our ecosystems. And it also suggests that people who help control invasive species, hunters and trappers, should be given credit for what they do to help control invasive species.  

Invasive species definitely are a problem. However, there are some native species that are also causing problems including damage to habitat. #1 on that list is the whitetail deer. In 1930 there were about 300,000 whitetails in the US. Today we have 30 million of them. https://www.deerbusters.com/white-tailed-deer-population-estimate/ We need to control that herd to help deer from contracting diseases like CWD that could spread to livestock or even people. 

Snow geese --  These snow white birds with black wing tips breed along the Arctic Ocean shores, but every winter they migrate south and  there is an overpopulation of snow geese despite very sizeable bag limits. Access to hunt them has declined and so their numbers have grown. Today there are over 15 million snow geese. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/exploding-arctic-snow-geese-numbers-stabilizing-but-still-high-1.3095247   (The daily limit for geese in CA this year is 20 snow geese and 10 dark geese.) Snow geese are destroying nesting habitat along the Arctic Ocean shores, and gobbling up grains of all kinds in farmers’ fields farther south. 

Canada Geese -- Canada geese once were scarce and even considered threatened. Today there are over three million Canada geese. http://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/canada-goose  They seek grassy lands with agricultural crops. They also hang out in urban areas in parks and people’s yards, where they pollute water and consume plants. They also are dangers for planes landing on airfields. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3263904/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 

Okay, the bottom line is that some native species of birds are declining and may be endangered. (The Kirtland warbler, incidentally, is being removed from the endangered species list thanks to habitat management in nesting areas in Ontario Michigan and Wisconsin. That deserves a headline or two.)  But, let’s not forget the full range of what’s causing native bird declines, one major factor being invasive species that are growing in numbers. 

If you are a hunter, whose numbers have been declining and have often become targets in the media, remind folks that invasive species are definitely a major problem for native species conservation, and if invasive species are not controlled agricultural crops will be destroyed and habitat for threatened species will really fade.  Hunters deserve credit for helping control species that are responsible for habitat destruction and they help the economy, while invasive species drain away money that could be used to help support good habitat.

So, know that ethical hunters are good guys as they participate in the web of life and help preserve natural areas that are good for humans and native species. And they can save endangered species and money by enjoying their time spent in nature and participating in the web of life like humans have been doing for thousands of years. 

— James A. Swan, Ph.D.