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The People Behind the Birds Named for People: Georg Wilhelm Steller

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 09:09
Steller’s Jay by Jacob McGinnis via Birdshare. hbspt.cta.load(95627, 'a8fe3c9a-217b-40fd-b1ff-2bb76ebe2cf3', {}); --> hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {}); -->

In the cool mountain forests of western North America lives a bold, crested jay whose rich blue-and-black plumage is reminiscent of a starry sky. Though it’s a stellar example of a jay, it’s officially Steller’s Jay—named for a man who himself was used to misspellings. Georg Wilhelm Stöller (1709–1746) was a German physician and amateur naturalist who emigrated to Russia, only to find that the country’s language lacked the proper vowels to spell or even pronounce his name. Embracing the adventures he was sure lay ahead in his new country, he changed his name to a more Russian-friendly form: Steller.

From a young age to his untimely end, Steller harbored a craving for adventure. He volunteered with the Russian army for a ticket to St. Petersburg—the exploration capital of the Old World at the time—and spent his last coin on directions to the Royal Botanical Gardens. There his luck changed: he left his career as a doctor behind, trained in mineralogy, zoology, and botany, secured an adjunct position with the Royal Academy of Sciences, and even found a wife.

His patron was so impressed that he recommended Steller for a position on the Second Kamchatka Expedition of Captain Vitus Bering, the legendary Russian explorer whose name wound up on the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Bering land bridge.

Steller had good timing. Bering needed a mineralogist; several academics who had volunteered to study the flora and fauna had chickened out; and Bering, who was 60, needed a personal physician. Steller was all those things. Looking to prove himself in a world not yet mapped to its corners, Steller packed up his life and left his wife to ride a dogsled to Kamchatka, nearly 4,000 miles away in far eastern Russia.

Key locations on Bering's expedition. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

So it was with a broken heart and worried mind that Steller set sail for what is now Alaska aboard Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, on May 29, 1741. The crew didn’t see land again for six weeks, and Bering’s second ship, the St. Paul, got lost in a fog and went home. But on July 14, Alaska’s Mt. Saint Elias rose faintly into view and Steller’s concerns dissolved into sublimity as the seas slapped the ship’s hull. The New World was on the horizon.

In the end, Bering never quite landed on Alaska’s mainland. The crew spent only one day on present-day Kayak Island, less than a mile off the coast of southeastern Alaska, before sailing back along the Aleutian island chain. Steller frantically collected specimens of foreign birds, plants, and minerals. He couldn’t help but notice a bold, black-crested bird that reminded him of the Blue Jay he had seen in American paintings. With this, Steller knew he was in America.

Bering had little time for birds; he was preoccupied with the weather. Fierce northeasterly winds on the way over had forecasted a difficult trip home. Considering that Steller had already amassed a large collection and that a storm was coming, Bering decided it was safest to stay away from shore and quickly head home.

In 1741, Georg Steller briefly visited North America on a Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering. On their return journey, the expedition was shipwreked on an island that is now named for Bering. From Wikimedia Commons.

On the way back to Kamchatka, storms rocked the St. Peter. The crew fell ill and sailors threw the dead overboard out of superstition. When land finally dotted the horizon, Steller wrote, “the half-dead crawled out to see it.” But heavy storms soon dashed their hope against the rocks of an unfamiliar island. Nearly nine-tenths of the way home, they were shipwrecked.

“God knows if this is Kamchatka,” wrote Steller.

A month after the wreck, Captain Bering died. The crew’s remaining hope dissolved, but Steller saw a long-sought opportunity to lead. He and three other men dug “graves” in the sand to sleep in, and fried gunpowder-tainted biscuits in seal fat to eat. Steller beat off foxes that ransacked the camp, and nursed his men back to health with otter meat and scurvy-grass. When winter hit, he dug his camp out of 5-foot snowdrifts and revived one man that went blind from frostbite. And while the others gambled with otter pelts, Steller busied himself recording the island’s natural history.

To Steller’s excitement, the wildlife on this uninhabited island—today called Bering Island—was unafraid of humans. Blue foxes often pilfered his notes, but what remained included sketches of a 20-foot-long, manatee-like “sea cow,” (now extinct) and massive sea otter colonies that later became the tragic focus of Russia’s fur trade. He spent six days observing the behavior of breeding fur seals from a hut he built at the center of a colony—one of the first times in history a naturalist used a study blind.

The appearance of Steller's Eider at Bering Island suggested the Russian mainland was not far away. Photo by Christoph Moning/Macaulay Library.

Steller also spotted flocks of a creamy, black-barred eider he had seen on Kamchatka—which he took as a sign he was not far from home. Heartened, he and his men redoubled their efforts building a new ship, which they sailed into the Kamchatka port in 1742, nearly a year and a half after leaving.

Four years and just one more major expedition later, Steller died of a fever in 1746. In his 37 years, he was the first European to communicate with Alaskan natives (and certainly the first to offer them brandy). He never returned to Germany or saw his wife again, having “quite forgotten her and fallen in love with Nature.” His discoveries on his American voyage were lauded, and earned him namesake status for four bird species—including Steller’s Jay, the bird that confirmed he was in America; and Steller’s Eider, which had guided him home.

Alison Haigh is an Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology major at Cornell University (Class of 2019). Her work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

Smooth Dance Moves Confirm New Bird-of-Paradise Species

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 12:10

Rare video confirms new “dancing” bird species.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Vogelkop Bird-of-Paradise
The Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise. Photo by Tim Laman/Macaulay Library.
Smooth Dance Moves Confirm New Bird-of-Paradise Species
Rare video highlights unique behavior and sounds

For release: April 17, 2018

Ithaca, NY—Newly publicized audiovisuals support full species status for one of the dancing birds-of-paradise in New Guinea. This new species, called the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise, is found only in the island’s far-western Bird’s Head, or Vogelkop, region. In a new paper published in the journal PeerJ, scientists “show and tell” half-a-dozen ways this form is distinct from the more widespread Superb Bird-of-Paradise, now called the Greater Superb Bird-of-Paradise—the bird known for its bouncy “smiley face” dance routine.

“After you see what the Vogelkop form looks like and acts like in the wild, there’s little room for doubt that it is a separate species,” says Ed Scholes with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds-of-Paradise Project. “The courtship dance is different. The vocalizations are different. The females look different. Even the shape of the displaying male is different.”

See the physical and acoustic differences explained in this video.
Vogelkop Bird-of-Paradise

When expanded for courtship display, the Vogelkop male’s raised cape creates a completely different appearance—crescent-shaped with pointed tips rather than the oval shape of the widespread form of the species. The way the Vogelkop male dances for the female is also is distinctive, the steps being smooth instead of bouncy.

The Cornell Lab’s Birds-of-Paradise Project ( is a research and education initiative to document, interpret, and protect the birds-of-paradise, their native environments, and the other biodiversity of the New Guinea region—one of the largest remaining tropical wildernesses on the planet.

Download comparison image.
Caption: The raised cape of the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise (right) is crescent shaped and unlike the oval shape of the widespread Greater Superb Bird-of-Paradise (left) found throughout most of New Guinea. Right image by Tim Laman/Macaulay Library. Left image from video by Ed Scholes/Macaulay Library.

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Media contact:
Pat Leonard, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, (607) 254-2137,
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s website at

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Seth Inman, March 2018 eBirder of the Month

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 12:43

Please join us in congratulating Seth Inman of Dunwoody, Georgia (left in above pic), winner of the March 2018 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Seth’s name was drawn randomly from the 3,902 eBirders who submitted at least 15 eligible checklists in March with at least one rated photo or sound. Seth will receive a new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binocular for his eBirding efforts. Here’s Seth’s birding story:

Although I grew up in Costa Rica and enjoyed seeing motmots in my backyard, or toucans on school trips, I wasn’t particularly fascinated with birds from a young age, but rather generally interested in all Tico––that is, Costa Rican––wildlife. But that changed in the last four or five years. I first heard of eBird through one of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s other citizen science projects called Celebrate Urban Birds. Since then I’ve been using and the eBird mobile app to document my observations all the time. What started more as a focus on making contributions to citizen science evolved over the last couple years into a full-fledged (pardon the pun) birding hobby, to the point where starting January 1st of this year I decided to commit to submitting at least one checklist a day in 2018 and see how that goes. I began making a conscious effort to try and complete the monthly challenges when possible back in 2015, never really believing that I would be randomly selected, but knowing that I was helping to provide whatever extra data the eBird team wanted to incentivize. Now I can enjoy an optics upgrade thanks to the generosity of Carl Zeiss Sports Optics and the eBird Team!

I strongly believe in the value of tapping into the huge global network of amateur experts that birders and birdwatchers form, so that we can add to the pool of knowledge on avian species created by trained ornithologists. But in addition to the scientific and statistical value of our checklists when added up to the millions of records, there’s also the personal benefits of eBird found in simply planning a birding trip by researching what kind of species have been seen where. I frequently use the Explore pages to find the best Hotspots to visit during my travels, and also enjoy creating a new Hotspot if I think a relatively unexplored area is worth highlighting for my peers. In particular I look forward to watching the Illustrated Checklist feature become more rich over time. Part of my work in conservation tourism has been helping hotels either form new Hotspots, or increase their dedication to consistently contributing data to their Hotspots, which creates a more valuable pool of information for the scientists analyzing eBird data, and also helps travelers decide where to go birding.

Most of my March birding took place in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA, although I also finished up a trip to California’s Bay Area that yielded a fair number of new species for me, particularly certain grebes and the amusing American Avocet. Traveling is always exciting in its potential to see some fresh or completely novel birds, but I also had a fun “lifer” surprise in my own neck of the woods when a pair of migrating Sandhill Cranes flew overhead in Georgia. New species can pop up unexpectedly even on a simple neighborhood walk! I like the monthly challenges––such as March’s––that encourage uploading photos to checklists, because I enjoy photographing birds anyway. Despite only having a point-and-shoot camera, every now and then a bird sits still long enough for me to get a shot I’m proud of and want to share. As it is I frequently use my camera to help me with tricky IDs; since I’ve only been birding for a handful of years and have moved between several countries while doing so, I still have lots to learn about local birds and their lookalikes. In this regard I’ve found the Merlin app and webpage invaluable resources. I also appreciate the work of regional eBird reviewers who have double-checked certain sightings with me, in a couple cases leading to a different identification, and I welcome the corrections! There’s no doubt that using eBird has made me a better birder, so thanks to the whole team for providing a place for that to happen!Birding in the tropics is a luxury, and I think this Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher at Poás Volcano in Costa Rica was the first truly crisp bird photo I ever got for such tough conditions, which makes this shot one of my favorites. Photo by Seth Inman/Macaulay Library

To Clean Or Not To Clean Your Nest Box?

Wed, 04/18/2018 - 16:31

By Anita Tendler, Cornell Class of 2019
Prior to the breeding season, we make sure that our nest boxes are ready for their future occupants. As the season progresses, we watch the naked hatchlings grow and develop into fully-feathered fledglings. Once the breeding season comes to a close, our nest boxes are abandoned and the leftover nesting material remains, which leaves the question, “What should be done with old nests?”

Eastern Bluebirds In A Tree Cavity
Eastern Bluebirds In A Tree Cavity
In natural cavities, birds often must deal with old nesting material that is already present.

Photo © Kelly Sandefur

Nest selection of natural cavities is quite different in comparison to our handy nest boxes. With a finite number of natural cavities to choose from, most birds can’t afford to be too picky. Birds often choose to reuse successful natural cavities because constructing a nest from scratch requires critical and limited time and energy. However, the threat of ectoparasites (e.g. mites, blowfly larvae) from the old nesting material can also act as a strong deterrent for cavity selection. With most birds not having the option to be choosy with their nest site selection, birds like the Eastern Bluebird simply build atop old nesting material if alternative cavities aren’t available.

Nest boxes provide cavity-nesting species the option to choose among several nest sites. As well-constructed as some nest boxes might be, they are not immune to ectoparasites, the presence of which can deter some birds from occupying a nest box.

Some birds have adapted to cope with ectoparasites, so cleaning out your nest box may not have any impact on whether they occupy it. Male House Wrens, for example, clean out the old nesting material between clutches, essentially doing the job for you.

House Wren Readying The Nest
House Wren Readying The Nest
Male House Wrens remove old nesting material between clutches.

Photo © Claudia Carpinone

To measure whether human intervention was helpful, researchers in Illinois removed old nesting material from some nest boxes that they knew successfully reared fledglings in the prior breeding season (Pacejka and Thompson 1996). With the other boxes left for the House Wrens to clean, the researchers conducted a mite count to determine if there was a perceptible difference. They found that there was no real difference, so regardless of who, or what, cleans out your nest box, mites will still be there.

Bluebirds do not remove old nesting material, rather they simply build over an existing nest. If you do not clean out your nest box, it may become filled to the brim with old nesting material. This can potentially leave the new nest dangerously close to the entrance hole, where predators can easily reach it.

Eastern Bluebird Eggs
Eastern Bluebird Eggs
Some bluebirds prefer a clean nest box, but it depends on location.

Photo © Tracy Lewandowski

To learn whether removing old nests influenced Eastern Bluebird nest box occupancy, a team of researchers in North Carolina erected 100 nest boxes. After a successful first clutch, they cleaned out half and left the others as is. When the bluebirds were left to make a choice to re-nest in a box with a positive association or to avoid ectoparasites, a whopping 71% of them them chose to move to a clean nest box (Stanback and Dervan 2001).

So that means you should clean your nest boxes, right? As compelling as these results are, it’s important to remember that this is situation-dependent. Interestingly, opposite conclusions were reached in a Kentucky study that found that Eastern Bluebirds in that state preferred nest boxes with old nests in them (Davis et al. 1994). There, parasitic wasps kill blowfly pupae over the winter; therefore, removing old nesting material may actually compromise this natural process.

Cleaning out your nest box is your choice, as nest site selection varies among cavity-nesting species. When making your decision, feel free to weigh the pros and cons, taking into consideration individual species preference and ectoparasite abundance. If you’re hoping to attract House Wrens to your nest box, don’t worry, they’ve got it covered. But, Eastern Bluebirds are a bit tricky. Depending on where you are, cleaning out your nest box may either invite or deter them.

A Mouse’s House
A Mouse’s House
Photo © Jonathan Morgan

Whether you decide to clean out your nest box at the end of the breeding season or not, don’t forget that leftover nesting materials make the perfect home for small mammals. If mice occupy nest boxes, you should definitely clean the boxes in the spring by removing nest material and washing with a soapy solution. Take precaution and wear gloves and a mask when removing rodent nests; they are far less fastidious than birds.

Davis, W. H., P. J. Kalisz, and R. J. Wells. 1994. Eastern bluebirds prefer boxes containing old nests (Preferencia en Sialia sialis por cajas que contienen nidos viejos). Journal of Field Ornithology 65(2):250–253.
Pacejka, A. J., and C. F. Thompson. 1996. Does removal of old nests from nestboxes by researchers affect mite populations in subsequent nests of house wrens? Journal of Field Ornithology 67(4):558–64.
Stanback, M. T., and A. A. Dervan. 2001. Within-season nest-site fidelity in eastern bluebirds: disentangling effects of nest success and parasite avoidance. The Auk 118(3):743.

Design Projects for Students to Support Birds

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 22:06

Design Projects for Students to Support Birds

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the connections between engineering and other scientific disciplines. Even with the environmental sciences, there are strong connections between our local animal engineers and the engineering practices our students can use to find solutions that benefit the natural world. These activities are designed to help students of all grade levels explore their power to effect and support birds and bird habitat by designing solutions focused on three of the main components of habitat: food, water, and cover.

One of the best activities to start with for students is designing their own bird feeder. We like to do this activity with recycled materials. Habitat destruction for urban and suburban development, including the destruction of native food sources, is one of the greatest threats to bird populations. Bird feeders benefit birds by replacing some of these sources. Bird feeders also provide a great opportunity for observing our feathered neighbors.

Materials & Instructions
Collect a varied assortment of recycled and natural materials. Materials can include plastic containers, cardboard, fabric, clothes hangers, metal clips, rubber bands, twine, tape, and old hardware.

Challenge students to design a functional bird feeder that can hold 1 cup of bird seed and withstand your climate and local birds for one week. Students can work independently or in small groups. Once all the bird feeders are constructed, have students justify their design and logic. Once all feeders have been explained, hang them outside near a window for easy viewing. Over the week have students monitor their feeder. They can observe the sturdiness of the feed, the number of bird visits, and measure the amount of bird seed consumed. After the week, have students critically analyze their feeder design and suggest changes they’d make.

Nesting is an important part of the life cycle, but it’s also a dangerous time for parents and chicks. Predators are always on the lookout for bird nests to make a meal of the eggs or chicks inside. Nest boxes are a great way to help birds find places to nest, but they can also attract predators. This activity challenges students to design a deterrent that will keep predators from raiding the nest.

Materials & Instructions

Photo from Ash, Flickr

Have your students discover the nesting birds in your area. If you do not already have a nest box in your schoolyard, you can download building plans through NestWatch. If you already have a nest box or platform, have students research the birds nesting there and discover the natural predators that may harm the eggs and chicks in their nest. Based on this information, have students critically analyze how such predators may access the nest.

Challenge students to design a barrier or baffle to inhibit predators. Materials could include wire mesh, PVC pipe, recycled items, or sheet metal. If students are having difficulty developing ideas, you can have them analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the predator guards on NestWatch.

Water is a necessity for wildlife and birds to survive. Students can design their own water filtration system to better understand the natural filtration process.

Materials & Instructions
There are several designs available to filter water. Provide students the materials below. Using only the materials provided, challenge them to design a filtration system that will be tested with muddy water.

Empty 2L soda bottles
Coffee filters
Coarse sand
Fine sand
Rubber bands
Cotton balls
Once students have built their filtration system, have them test their filtration with ‘wastewater.’ You can create wastewater by mixing vinegar, dust, top soil, water, and food coloring. Have student analyze the effect of the different water filtration designs and develop the ‘ideal’ filtration system.

Unsure how to build a filter? First cut off the bottom of your 2L soda bottle and flip the bottle so that the bottle cap is facing the floor. Remove and appropriately discard your bottle cap. Place your coffee filter around and on top of the bottle’s nozzle. Be sure to secure the filter with an elastic band. This will be used to remove any small sediments from your water. Place several cotton balls and press them to the bottom of your filter. Fill your bottle with approximately ½-1 cup of fine sand. This sand can assist in removing pathogens or chemicals in the water. Fill the next layer with approximately ½-1 cup of coarse sand. This will help filter out fine impurities, such as parasites and bacteria. The final layer will be filled with larger pebbles and rocks. This aids in filtering out large impurities. If you desire, students may also place charcoal (approximately ½ cup) in their filter, as it most effective at removing chlorine, sediment, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from water.

Take the Window Quiz and Protect Birds From Window Strikes

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 09:49

Improve Windows to Protect Birds
Becca Rodomsky-Bish April 16, 2018
Birds hit windows. Why, you might wonder? Because they see like us. If you stand outside a window and see a beautiful blue sky with billowing clouds and tree tops reflected back at you, birds see that, too. They, unfortunately, are not able to discern that they are looking at a window and not wide open space, making them prone to fly into the window.

New to Habitat Network? Welcome, at Habitat Network we are interested in understanding how people manage their spaces to benefit wildlife. If you aren’t familiar with our citizen science project, but just took the bird window quiz, we invite you to explore our site, which offers a science-based look at how to manage yards and other spaces more ecologically. Some small changes in practices can have major benefits to wildlife and people. If you are intrigued, consider becoming a Habitat Network participant by creating an account with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and mapping your yard or community to show us how you support wildlife.
Christine Sheppard windo example
There are numerous solutions to this issue; and, we’ve created this Window Quiz to help you figure out which type of window treatment is best for you. And, yes, you can have your cake, and eat it, too. Meaning, you can keep your beautiful window views but still protect birds from hitting them.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 8.44.22 PM
After taking the quiz, scan below to to see these options in action. We’ve organized this information based on the cost, durability, visibility, and ease of removal.

Inexpensive & Easily Removable
Inexpensive & Durable
Inexpensive & Unobstructed Views
Easily Removable & Unobstructed Views
Easily Removable & Durable
Durable & Unobstructed View
Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 11.09.19 AM
American Bird Conservancy does an excellent job providing links to the companies where these window protections can be purchased. After figuring out which one is right for your needs, check out their page to find a retailer. Keep in mind that different windows might benefit from slightly different window protection.

Inexpensive & Easily Removable
Window options that might work for you are:

Bird tape
Tempura paint
Post-its, masking tape, or newspaper squares
Inexpensive & Durable
Window options that might work for you are:

Bird tape
Window Decals
Microfilament (fishing) Lines
Inexpensive & Unobstructed Views
Window options that might work for you are:

Window Decals
Microfilament (fishing) Lines
Dot Decals
Easily Removable & Unobstructed Views
Window options that might work for you are:

Motorized Shades
Microfilament (fishing) Lines
Easily Removable & Durable
Window options that might work for you are:

Motorized Shades
Microfilament (fishing) Lines
Screens or other Shades
High-end Decals
Durable and Unobstruted View
Window options that might work for you are:

Motorized Shades
Solyx Window Films
Protecting your windows is a critical step for wildlife gardeners. Explore American Bird Conservancy for more information on where to purchase these lifesavers. To learn more about this issue and other ways to prevent window strikes, visit All About Birds.

Bird Cams: Live Savannah Osprey Nest Camera

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 14:10

Savannah OspreysLocation: Savannah, GeorgiaCamera Host: Skidaway Audubon

Savannah OspreyHighlights
Learn AboutOspreys
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Find more about Weather in Savannah, GA

OspreyTreeNest PlacementOspreys require nest sites in open surroundings for easy approach, with a wide, sturdy base and safety from ground predators (such as raccoons). Nests are usually built on snags, treetops, or crotches between large branches and trunks; on cliffs or human-built platforms. Usually the male finds the site before the female arrives. Nest DescriptionOsprey nests are built of sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or flotsam and jetsam. The male usually fetches most of the nesting material—sometimes breaking dead sticks off nearby trees as he flies past—and the female arranges it. Nests on artificial platforms, especially in a pair’s first season, are relatively small—less than 2.5 feet in diameter and 3–6 inches deep. After generations of adding to the nest year after year, Ospreys can end up with nests 10–13 feet deep and 3–6 feet in diameter—easily big enough for a human to sit in.Clutch Size1-4 eggsIncubation Period36-42 daysNestling Period50-55 daysEgg DescriptionCream to pinkish cinnamon; wreathed and spotted with reddish brown.Condition at HatchingCapable of limited motion. Covered with down and with eyes open.FishFoodThe Osprey is the only hawk on the continent that eats almost exclusively live fish. In North America, more than 80 species of live fresh- and saltwater fish account for 99 percent of the Osprey’s diet. Captured fish usually measure about 6–13 inches in length and weigh one-third to two-thirds of a pound. The largest catch on record weighed about 2.5 pounds. On very rare occasions, Ospreys have been observed feeding on fish carcasses or on birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats, and salamanders. Ospreys probably get most of the water they need from the flesh of their prey, although there are reports of adults drinking on hot days. Typical VoiceOspreys have high-pitched, whistling voices. Their calls can be given as a slow succession of chirps during flight or as an alarm call—or strung together into a series that rises in intensity and then falls away, similar to the sound of a whistling kettle taken rapidly off a stove. This second type of call is most often given as an unfamiliar Osprey approaches the nest. As the perceived threat increases, the call can build in intensity to a wavering squeal.
more sounds

About the Savannah Ospreys
During the Fall of 2014, a pair of Great Horned Owls began frequenting this recently abandoned Bald Eagle nest adjacent to a protected, nutrient-rich salt marsh along the Georgia coast. The nest sits nearly 80′ above one of the six Audubon International Certified golf courses at The Landings, on Skidaway Island, near Savannah, Georgia. Over the course of 2015 and 2016, a pair of owls successfully fledged four owlets from the site, but they did not return to breed in 2017. Instead, a pair of Ospreys began renovating the nest and committed to breeding in the same site for 2017.

Ospreys are consummate fishing birds, and this pair fishes primarily from the nearby salt marsh, ponds, and waterways. They use their 6–7 foot wingspans to soar above the water, looking for fish, then diving as deep as 3 feet for shallow-swimming prey. Adult Ospreys usually weigh 3–4 pounds, and they can carry prey up to 50 percent of their own weight. Ospreys can live up to 25 years, and they typically lay 1–4 eggs in a clutch.

Most Osprey pairs are monogamous, staying paired across seasons and beginning nesting soon after each returns from a long migration. Both sexes incubate the eggs. The female sits for the majority of the time (including throughout the night) while the male provisions her with fish. After the eggs hatch, the male continues to bring fish to the nest; the female exclusively broods the young and dissects their meals for about a month after hatching. Later on, when the chicks no longer require her protection and their appetite for fish increases, she will leave the nest and go fishing.

The installation was funded by Skidaway Audubon, with approval from the Landings Club board. Essential species-specific information and support came from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Streaming systems vendor HDonTap installed the cameras and provided the managed live streaming service.

Support for the installation and upkeep has come from The Landings Association and The Landings Club with additional funding from Ogeechee Audubon, the Coastal Conservation Association, The Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association, the Georgia Golf Environmental Foundation and Wild Birds Unlimited, Savannah.

Citizen Science Can Deepen Connections and Create a Meaningful Place

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 13:20

Citizen Science and Sense of Place
Jacob Johnston April 12, 2018
Sense of Place
Where do you live? What can you tell me about it? Beyond the address, what makes the space you live in a place you call home? Is it the building, the landscaping, or the items that fill the rooms? Perhaps it’s the activities, the social interactions, or the memories associated with these. Our individual experiences shape our relationship with our residence and provide a richer understanding of our surroundings, creating important attachments to the places we are familiar with.

Engaging in citizen-science projects, like Habitat Network, can help you connect with your world as much as you help us connect with ours. While citizen science often aims to collect data at large geographic scales, it tends to engage individuals and communities in local-level data collection. This provides an opportunity to convey specific and local ecological information to interested participants. Most programs provide a specific protocol for collecting and submitting data while others may also take advantage of outreach and education opportunities to offer feedback to participants about their specific impact.

Miao Yuan (left), Dong Dazheng (right) looking out at the Dongtan Wetlands. The Chongming Dongtan National Nature Reserve is one of the world’s largest alluvial islands, situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River and just 30 miles from Shanghai. It’s
Data collection, ranging from simple observational counts and geographic location information to the complex geospatial data collected by Habitat Network, has potential to evolve into a recorded personal history of evolving interests, concerns, and behaviors. Documenting changes over time also helps people recognize the impact they have as a result of their continued engagement. Habitat Network, through features like the Habitat Overview and the Planning Tool, seeks to provide this type of platform to participants to inform them of the ecological effects of their activities resulting in deeper, more intimate, connections to their place.

Confirming the identification of a Great Basin Fritillary butterfly in Red canyon, near Lander, WY.
Traditional techniques and funding for conservation efforts are not necessarily sufficient to address the increasing scale of existing and future conservation needs. Citizen science, however, through the recruitment and training of massive teams of volunteer data collectors, is becoming a common way of increasing the scope of data collection to accommodate some of this growing demand.

For hundreds of years, citizen participation in research has benefited science, conservation management, and environmental protection. As citizen science continues to demonstrate credibility in obtaining high quality data using robust verification techniques, projects are likely to increase in both scale and reach of their public engagement. The increasing support may allow research organizations the opportunity to increase citizen science and conservation efforts to tackle immense and complicated environmental problems spanning large tracts of time and geography.

Research being conducted into the effects of cattle grazing on California’s delicate vernal pool habitats by Jaymee Marty, The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist for the Central Valley and Mountains region with the Conservancy’s Sacramento Office in Cali
Online access to citizen-science projects has greatly extended their reach in the past 15 years, increasing participation and bringing the opportunity to engage to 100s of 1000s of people. As they develop, online projects continue to harness new technologies to improve the way data are entered, analyzed, and displayed. Those focused on local conservation efforts may be increasingly effective at improving scientific literacy, expanding scientific knowledge, and connecting individuals to their environment.

Even large, global communities of online citizen scientists can effectively contribute to local conservation efforts and address immediate environmental concerns. Where traditional scientists often have only limited access to private properties, citizen-science projects–that engage the property owners themselves– offer a tool to expand the reach of conservation research into residential ecosystems in meaningful ways.

You might engage in citizen science for a variety of reasons–an interest in the subject, a desire to help science, or to improve your reputation in the community. Whatever your motivation, we understand that one of the reasons you remain in a project is for the continued learning opportunities and your own personal growth. Being able to see your individual contributions through publications or online data visualizations can be a powerful way for you to take your local place to the next level .

What turns insignificant space into a meaningful place? The research suggests that various experiences, gained knowledge, and increased understanding of a place can increase ones attachment along with length of residency or home ownership. Sometimes major landscape characteristics–like rivers, mountain ranges, or skylines– are important, but features of your local environment, like parks, yards, a favorite big tree, or gardens are important to a meaningful place as well.

Citizen-science projects, like Habitat Network, recognize the importance of connecting with our environment and aim to help people develop deeper attachment and meaning from places they live, visit, and interact with. At the intersection of citizen-science contributions and sense of place understanding, lies an opportunity to engage and connect with the world around you like never before. By connecting you to your local environment and providing informative feedback, Habitat Network hopes to offer the kinds of experiences that let you make deeper connections to the places you already hold dear.

Nathan Pieplow: Bird Sounds Decoded [video]

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 14:53
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Nathan Pieplow offers expert tips on how to learn bird songs and identify birds by ear without having to memorize each species’ sounds. Anyone who has tried to use sound to identify birds knows that it can be difficult to learn, but it is a crucial skill as birds don’t always show themselves. Pieplow suggests that the key is learning to visualize sounds, and his practical instructions will make you a better listener. He will also help you understand birds by their sounds, guide you to hear the details that you hadn’t noticed before, and give you the vocabulary to describe those details. The Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds, authored by Pieplow, lets you look up sounds, the way you look up words in the dictionary, and helps decode the messages hidden in birds’ songs and calls.

The talk took place on April 2, 2018. It is part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

See our index of archived livestreamed seminars to enjoy more talks from the Cornell Lab.

Here’s How to Use the New Migration Forecast Tools from BirdCast

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 14:11

Three easy steps to planning your next morning of birding. Visit BirdCast for latest map data.[/caption] -->

Three easy steps to planning your next morning of birding. Visit BirdCast for latest map data.

Migration is the best time to be a bird watcher. Twice a year, hordes of birds travel thousands of miles to grace your home turf for a few days or weeks. But they don’t come in a steady stream—more like a cascade of arrivals coming in flurries and pauses. That’s why even during peak migration, some days are dead while others are packed with new arrivals.

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Now, our BirdCast project can help you know when those flurries are about to arrive, so you can plan when to get up early. They’ve boiled down decades of migration science, coupled it with real-time weather data, and created two simple tools: a 3-day migration forecast, and an up-to-the-moment replay of migration activity. We checked in with BirdCast’s Kyle Horton and Adriaan Dokter for some pointers:

First, Check the Migration Forecast On the forecast maps, bright colors (yellows and reds) indicate more predicted activity than cooler colors (blues and greens). This is a sample map from May 2017; see BirdCast for the most recent forecast maps. Image by Benjamin Van Doren and Kyle Horton.

That large, colorful map on the left of the BirdCast page shows the forecast for tonight’s migration. Below it are thumbnails of predictions for the next three nights (click or tap to see full images). The idea is that by casting your eye over these maps, you can compare how the next few nights stack up. The maps are produced by BirdCast’s Benjamin Van Doren and Kyle Horton.

The magic of the forecast maps is that they compile more than 20 years of data on when migrants are on the move and mash it up with meteorological data including wind speed, direction, barometric pressure, and temperature. You no longer have to have a Ph.D. in migration ecology to use all these variables: just look for the brightest colors on the maps to know when to go.

Watch for Storms

Birds typically migrate during clear weather and drop to the ground when it starts raining. The forecasts alert you to this by showing major weather systems on the maps. As many birders have long known, nighttime storms on a busy migration night can drive migrants to land, creating great birding in the morning (the Gulf Coast’s spectacular “fallouts” are the classic example of this). Conversely, a storm can create a migration barrier and keep birds from reaching the far side of the system. So when looking at the forecasts, keep an eye out for weather systems, shown on the maps in gray and black.

Use the Live Maps for a Reality Check

Like all forecasts, a migration forecast is a prediction based on computer models—it’s not always right. That’s where that mostly black map on the right of the BirdCast page comes in—it’s a live radar map that shows actual bird activity in the sky in near real time.

Example of migration activity data over a single night in May 2017, as measured by 143 radar stations across the U.S. The red line shows sunset; yellow line represents sunrise. See most recent maps at BirdCast. Image by Adriaan Dokter.

Click or tap on that black map to bring up an animated version that loops through the night’s activity, showing an estimate of how many birds are moving in your area. The maps use data from 143 radar stations that update every 10 minutes, compiling about 100 gigabytes of data every night via an algorithm designed by BirdCast’s Adriaan Dokter.

Amazingly, the radar data can even reveal which direction the birds are flying. It turns out they don’t all fly due north in spring and due south in fall. Check the orange arrows to see where the birds are headed—it might help you decide where in your area is the best bet for birding.

You can check these maps during the night or look at them first thing in the morning, when you can play back the activity over the whole previous night (from sunset on the East Coast to an hour after sunrise on the West Coast). Controls on the player let you pause, rewind, speed up, slow down, or advance the playback one frame at a time.

And don’t worry that you have to stay up till dawn obsessively refreshing the page for the latest data (unless you want to, of course). Migration flights typically peak a few hours after sunset, so if it looks good at 10 p.m., it will probably still be good in the morning.

The End Goal? Conservation

These new tools are a gift to bird watchers looking to fine-tune their birding schedule—but Horton, Dokter, and the rest of the BirdCast team have a bigger goal. By creating accurate forecasts and up-to-the-minute monitoring tools, they hope to provide tools for managing wind turbines and city lights. Collisions with lighted windows (and, to a lesser extent, wind turbines) are a major cause of bird death. But the majority of migrants come through on a few nights each year, meaning that fairly minor, temporary adjustments could save huge numbers of birds.

Fine Print

The BirdCast maps make the most of the available data and models, and have undergone significant testing. Still, Horton and Dokter outlined a few caveats to bear in mind as you start to use the maps.

  • Coverage is limited to the U.S.—why? We agree, it would be great to extend these maps to Canada and Mexico, but the radar infrastructure and the real-time data connections don’t currently allow that.
  • Migration strength is relative to the whole country. On the forecast map, migration activity is shown on a blue-yellow-red scale. High-migration areas such as the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Flyway will reliably turn red during peak migration; but other parts of the country, such as the Rockies, will rarely show red, even on locally good nights, because they don’t reach the same level of activity.
  • Bird numbers are approximate. The real time migration maps estimate activity in thousands of birds per kilometer. These numbers are based on songbird-sized birds—it’s possible that there could be smaller numbers of larger birds creating the same signal.
  • Radar can’t tell bird species. Radar data can tell us a lot, but at the moment it can’t tell us which species are migrating. The maps can tell you when birds are moving—figuring out which ones is up to you.
  • Flight direction is sometimes wrong. The flight direction arrows calculate an average direction for all the birds moving over a fairly large area—so sometimes they point in unexpected directions. They should be used as a general indication rather than a precise number.

Living Bird Spring 2018—Table Of Contents

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:53
Araripe Manakin by Gerrit Vyn. More From Living Bird hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {}); Feature ArticlesThe Araripe Manakin, Keeper of the Spring WatersPhotography by Gerrit Vyn; story by Gustave AxelsonRusty Blackbirds are Rising from Obscurity but Falling in NumberBy David W. Shaw Rusty Blackbird by Sparky Stensaas.Old-Growth Is Great, But Here’s Why We Need New-Growth Forests, TooBy Scott Weidensaul Photo by Kelly Triece.Analysis: Reinterpretation of Migratory Bird Treaty Act Runs Counter to Spirit of the LawBy Lynn ScarlettA Yard Full of Native Plants Is a Yard Full of Well-Fed BirdsBy Kathi BorgmannFrom Museum Drawers, Scientists Uncover Our Sooty PastBy Kathi Borgmann Sooty air in Joliet, Illinois, 1901; photo from the Library of Congress, LC-D4-5935.Bottlenecks, Refueling Stations, and Fire Escapes: 3 Types of Stopover Sites Migrants Really NeedDesigned by Jillian Ditner, illustration by Bartels Science Illustrator Phillip Krzeminski Columns & DepartmentsView From Sapsucker Woods: Storm Clouds Brewing for the Migratory Bird Treaty ActBy John W. FitzpatrickNew Antbird named for E.O. WilsonBy Marc DevokaitisWhy Don’t Some Warblers Nest Farther West? Maybe It’s Just Too Tough to Get ThereBy Kathi BorgmannChinese Government Puts the Brakes on Reclamation of Shorebird HabitatBy Marc DevokaitisQ&A with Wildlife DJ Ben MirinBy Alison HaighBird Cams’ California Condor Chick Survives the 2017 WildfiresBy Marc Devokaitis California Condor chick #871 was found alive and mostly well after California's Thomas Fire. Photo by Stephanie Herrera.>Tiny Warbler Leaves South America, Turns Up Outside the Cornell Lab Weeks LaterBy Max WitynskiGallery: Albatross BlueText and lithograph by Kylie Corwin

Gallery: Albatross Blue

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:51

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
Why look’st thou so?’/With my cross-bow / I shot the ALBATROSS.

In this excerpt from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a sailor curses his ship by shooting down an albatross. My lithograph—Albatross Blue—is an artistic response to this poem that probes the nuanced and fractured relationship between people and this lofty seabird.

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The albatross is a complicated subject because it is endearing, yet haunting. On magnificent wings, the albatross sails above the waves for months on end before returning home to dance and love its partner. It’s a simple lifestyle, one to admire. But the Laysan Albatross and its livelihood are threatened by commercial fishing bycatch, plastics pollution, and climate change. We would do well to take better care of the albatross. For as Coleridge writes later in the poem:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell / To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.

Bird Cams’ California Condor Chick Survives the 2017 Wildfires

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:48
California Condor chick #871 was found alive and mostly well after California’s Thomas Fire. Photo by Stephanie Cruz Herrera/USFWS. More From Living Bird

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

What does a California Condor nestling do when its home base is threatened by fire? For one young bird, the fire may have been the motivation to fledge.

The Thomas Fire, the largest of several wildfires that raged through Southern California last December and January, burned approximately 440 square miles and more than 1,000 structures as it ran from the coastal towns of Santa Barbara and Ventura deep into the rocky hills of Los Padres National Forest. Los Padres is home to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, site of a boulder-strewn pass known as Devils Gate—and an online Bird Cam hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cornell Lab of Ornithology that has provided thousands of web viewers with a window into a wild California Condor nest.

In mid-December, the Thomas fire was creeping ever closer to the nest at Devils Gate, where this year’s chick, #871, was close to fledging. But due to issues with weather and the solar-powered equipment at the remote nest site, the camera was offline. Biologists Nadya Seal Faith and Joseph Brandt of the Condor Recovery Team had been checking in on the condor chick at the nest, but they had to suspend their monitoring forays because of the impending inferno. Luckily, both #871 and her parents were fitted with transmitters that gave the researchers some clues about the family’s whereabouts, and the signs were encouraging.

California Condor chick #871 with its father (left), at about 7 weeks old. The chick hatched April 11, 2017. Photos are from the Cornell Lab Bird Cams project.California Condor chick #871 is a female. Here, she is about 7 weeks old and is pictured with her father. Both male and female parents bring food to the nest. #871 shares a quiet moment with her mother in June 2017. At 2 months old, #871 stretches her wings. One day they may span over nine feet and fly up to 40 miles per hour. Chick #871 may be less than 2 months old in this photo, but she already has a profile similar to her father's. When chick #871 was about 4 months old, biologists gave her a full checkup, tested her for lead, and attached her numbered tag and radio transmitter. PreviousNext

On December 27, a team of biologists were given the go-ahead to hike the trails on the unburned east side of the Sespe River, across the canyon from the nest. They detected faint signals from #871’s transmitter over the next two days, but they did not see the bird. Finally, on January 2, Seal Faith and Brandt hiked into the nest area to assess the site and quickly spotted two condors that they identified as #871’s parents. After climbing to a higher vantage point, Seal Faith saw #871 for the first time since the bird had left the nest. Perched on a ledge on the unburned side of the canyon, the condor looked to be in good shape, despite some singed wingtips on its tattered feathers.

Seal Faith speculates that #871’s feathers might have burned from being close to scorching-hot rocks while climbing out of its nest cavern in a close escape, but she said the damage shouldn’t hinder its ability to fly. The Condor Cam online community was elated about the happy ending, with one cam watcher sharing her feelings in the online comment thread: “I am crying tears of joy and I am ecstatic that she is doing amazing and flying free!”

Q&A with Wildlife DJ Ben Mirin

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:38

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Ben Mirin is not your average naturalist, or mix master. As a wildlife DJ, Mirin blends his passions for animal sounds and beatboxing to create music that showcases the voices of the wild and teaches people about nature. Mirin, who is also a National Geographic Explorer and natural sounds recordist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, embarks on expeditions across the globe to gather sound recordings of wildlife for his music and science. The Cornell Lab recently named Mirin an Environmental Ambassador. We asked him how he uses hip hop and bird song to strike up new dialogues about the natural world.

More From Living Bird What is beatboxing?

Ben Mirin: Beatboxing is a musical style based entirely on vocalization. You use your voice to create different sounds and blend them together in a musical way. What’s exciting is that beatboxing is universal. Everyone has the instrument: your mouth. And if you’re listening carefully, you can integrate the sounds around you into your musical vocabulary.

When were you inspired to mix beatboxing with bird song?

BM: I’ve been birding since I was about 4 years old, and beatboxing since I was 9. When I moved to Brooklyn, I had a hard time hearing the bird song over the traffic, and I very quickly realized that I was cut off from a critical part of myself. But I felt more at home when I was able to share my passion for the natural world with the beatboxing world. I started performing little songs around New York City where I would imitate bird songs while beatboxing on stage, and using the music to teach people about how to tune into their backyards.

Check out Beastbox Online

BeastBox is a new free online game that takes sound clips from real wild animals and transforms them into musical loops, allowing users to mix and match them into an endless variety of beats, breaks, and drops. Along the way, players learn about animals, ecosystems, and acoustic environments.

The game is the result of a collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, the Cornell University Hip Hop Collection, and wild sounds DJ Ben Mirin.

What makes music such a strong storyteller?

BM: Sound has opened my eyes, and my ears, to stories that I might not otherwise think about. I go on expeditions to record wildlife sounds that are important to a particular story. In India, it was about recording birds that were locally common but critically endangered. No one knew how rare they were. It was about making music with the birds’ voices, playing it to a local audience, and getting them excited about their natural heritage.

What does it take to get, and keep, young people excited about conservation?

BM: The whole point is to get people excited. My hope is to equate learning about nature with the joy that it brings. And I want to share that; I want everyone to discover the inherent reward in connecting to nature.

Where have you seen that happening, through sound? hbspt.cta.load(95627, '096b8ce3-0e2d-46c5-bbf7-12de3323c8da', {});

BM: I lead bird walks here in New York City. One of my favorite experiences was taking a smaller group of kids into Central Park and just listening. The way that they tune into the world around them is inspiring. When one kid turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m in the jungle!”, I was just overjoyed, because that is their jungle. You have to find the jungle at home before you can find the jungle abroad.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start tuning into their own jungle?

BM: Stand silently in your own backyard and count all the things that you can hear. It can be anything, even a jet plane. Though hopefully not. Just keeping that tally of what you can hear will make you more aware of the orchestra playing all around you. The beautiful part is that you feel like you’re somewhere else, but you’re right at home. It transforms your perception of your world.

Chinese Government Puts the Brakes on Reclamation of Shorebird Habitat

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:24
In the 1950s, 1.2 million hectares of Yellow Sea mudflats provided key stopover habitat for migratory shorebirds like these Bar-tailed Godwits. Today, reclamation projects in China and South Korea have cut that number to 400,000 hectares. Photo by Gerrit Vyn. More From Living Bird

The Yellow Sea is the hub in the middle of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway— the grand migratory bird highway of the Eastern Hemisphere that stretches from Australia to Siberia, and even to far western Alaska. Since the 1950s, more than 50 percent of China’s intertidal shorebird habitats along the Yellow Sea coast have been dredged and filled, as rapid economic development fueled a boom in tidal flat reclamation projects. But the tide might now be turning for shorebirds, as the Chinese government announced in January that it will halt business-oriented coastal land reclamation “in the strictest-ever control over reclamation,” according to China’s State Oceanic Administration.

On the website of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Gu Wu, head of the National Marine Inspection Office, said that “illegal and irregular reclamation activities caused a number of problems to marine ecosystems” and “have become a major public concern.”

The restriction on tidal habitat destruction is great news for the 25 species of migratory shorebirds that travel the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and are showing steep and troubling population declines. Far Eastern Curlews have suffered more than 80 percent population loss in the last decade due to Yellow Sea habitat loss. Spoon-billed Sandpipers have become one of the world’s most endangered species, with fewer than 500 individuals left.

A Far Eastern Curlew stands among smaller Whimbrels. These curlews have suffered more than 80 percent population loss in the last decade. Photo by Ricardo Bitran via Birdshare.Spoon-billed Sandpipers have become one of the world’s most endangered species, with fewer than 500 individuals left. Photo by Natthaphat Chotjuckdikul/Macaulay Library.

The Chinese government’s announcement stated that future reclamation projects would be restricted to those that pertain to infrastructure, public welfare, or national defense, so it remains to be seen exactly how these new policies will play out along the Yellow Sea coast. But conservationists are hopeful.

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“Since the policy measures [affect] the whole coastal region of China, it is obvious that all bird species using China’s coastal wetlands as their habitats will benefit,” said Rose Niu, chief conservation officer for the Paulson Institute, a think tank founded by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson to strengthen U.S.–China relations.

“Chinese top leadership were informed about the rapid decline of the biodiversity and ecosystems in the coastal region … and clear instruction was made from the top leadership to improve the situation,” Niu said. “The measures are very comprehensive and very strict. Many reclamation projects which are not in line with the rules will be stopped immediately, so it is a great win for conservation already.”  

New Antbird named for E.O. Wilson

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:15
E.O. Wilson by Jim Harrison; Cordillera Azul Antbird (Myrmoderus eowilsoni) by Andrew Spencer/Macaulay Library.

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In his autobiography, Naturalist, the famous biologist E.O. Wilson wrote that as a child growing up in the 1930s and 40s, his poor hearing and partial loss of eyesight meant he was “a wretched bird watcher. I couldn’t hear birds. I couldn’t locate them unless they obligingly fluttered past in full view.” As a result, he turned his attention to creatures that could be captured “between my thumb and forefinger and brought close for inspection.” Namely, ants.

More From Living Bird

Fast forward to July 2016. Birder Josh Beck was in the eastern foothills of the Peruvian Andes exploring a remote mountain forest when he heard the rattling alarm call of an antbird. After playing back some audio of similar antbird calls, he was able to get a recording of the mystery bird’s song and see its diminutive black-and-russet body briefly in the open. He soon determined that the bird did not match any known antbird. As luck would have it, there were several other researchers and ornithologists staying in the nearby town of Flor de Café, and they were able to visit the site and obtain additional documentation.

A recent paper in The Auk describes the new Cordillera Azul Antbird, with the scientific name Myrmoderus eowilsoni, named in honor of Wilson. When we asked about his new eponymous bird, Wilson mused: “In addition to some ant species, I share names with an Australian cockroach, a New Caledonian cave-dwelling phalangid [a spider-like arachnid], and maybe a couple more. None have the extraordinary star power of the Myrmoderus eowilsoni.”


Montcrieff, A. E., et al. 2018. A new species of antbird (Passeriformes: Thamnophilidae) from the Cordillera Azul, San Martín, Peru. Auk 135:114–126.

From Museum Drawers, Scientists Uncover Our Sooty Past

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 21:07
More From Living Bird

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

So an art historian and an orni­thologist walk into a museum…

It sounds like the setup for a punchline, but when Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay went looking through the specimens in the underground archives of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, what they uncovered was not a joke. Instead they saw something that made them gasp—Horned Larks and Red-headed Woodpeckers with dirty, gray bellies.

Typically these species’ bellies are white, but these particular birds were collected in the Midwest in the early 1900s, around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution.

“Could it really be particulate matter from the atmosphere during the time when the bird was alive?” wondered DuBay.

Fuldner, an art historian, first con­tacted DuBay, an ornithologist, to get his opinion on bird photographs tak­en in the late 1890s. Both are graduate students at the University of Chicago. DuBay thought it would be fun to take Fuldner into the museum to show him a few birds from the time period when the photos were taken. That’s when they first saw the strange gray-bellied birds.

After inspecting thousands of birds from collections across the manufac­turing belt from Wisconsin to Penn­sylvania, Fuldner and DuBay published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Newspapers nationwide picked up on the headline news from their paper—birds collected in the early 20th century held signs that our air was so dirty that even birds’ feathers turned gray. More shockingly, the amount of black carbon or soot accumulated on birds’ feathers from 1880 to 2015 told a story of burn­ing coal and environmental policy in the United States.

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For example, from the late 1880s to the 1930s, coal consumption increased and the amount of soot found on spec­imens remained high. But specimens from the Great Depression, a period when manufacturing slowed, had less soot on their feathers. Another drop in soot appeared during the second half of the 20th century, when there was less black carbon in the air due to reg­ulations limiting the domestic use of soft bituminous coal, and because cit­ies shifted to cleaner-burning fuels and centralized power plants. Although coal consumption continued to increase in the United States, black carbon emis­sions decreased as a result of shifting away from dirty coal, giving us cleaner skies—and white-bellied birds. Since then, the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963, has helped maintain clear skies.

“What’s so exciting,” says Fuldner, “is that you can see to some extent what approaches were effective in a way that we’ve never been able to see before.”

DuBay and Fuldner were able to link annual coal consumption with the amount of soot on the feathers thanks, in part, to bird biology; birds grow a new set of feathers every year.

“Molt provides opportunities to un­derstand the scheduling of events in a bird’s life,” says Vanya Rowher, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. Fuldner says that new feather growth made it possible “to reconstruct the historical environment from the given year in which the bird was collected, as opposed to the bird accumulating soot and particulate on its feathers through its entire lifetime.”

Specimen photos by Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay. Field Sparrow by Todd Fellenbaum, Eastern Towhee by Rob Wallace, Red-headed Woodpecker by Rick McArthur, Horned Lark by CT_Imagery all via Birdshare. A Snapshot in Time

Naturalists and collectors in the early 20th century thought of the dirty feathers as a nuisance. But, says Rowher, that’s the beauty of collec­tions. One hundred years ago nobody had any idea these specimens could be used for studying air quality. Pre­served specimens allow researchers to address questions that were never even thought of when the bird was collected.

Museum collections offer scientists the opportunity to go where field stud­ies can’t—the opportunity to time-trav­el back into past centuries to study their subjects. Rowher says that studying birds across large geographic areas or spans of decades is extremely hard to do without the vast amounts of historical data that exist in museums.

“What are you going to do, just wait 100 years?” Rowher asks.

He also says there’s a lot more waiting to be uncovered in museum specimens.

As the diet of the Marbled Murrelet shifted throughout the 20th century, the change was reflected in their feathers that are now preserved in museum specimens. Photo by by Roger van Gelder via Birdshare.

“DuBay and Fuldner’s study show­cases just the stuff you can see on spec­imens, but with the new technologies like stable isotopes you can reconstruct the diets of birds from the 1900s,” says Rowher. “That’s pretty powerful for understanding how diets changed through time.”

For example, in 2016 Benjamin Beck­er and Steven Beissinger from the Uni­versity of California, Berkeley, used stable isotope comparisons to reconstruct the diet of the Marbled Murrelet, a now-en­dangered seabird. They wanted to know if somehow a change in their diet might be contributing to their decline.

Becker and Beissinger compared sta­ble isotope signatures in feathers from specimens collected from 1895 to 1911 to isotope signatures left on the feath­ers of modern birds. In the early 20th century, murrelets were feeding on sar­dines, a high-energy resource. But as the fisheries industry started harvest­ing more and more sardines, murrelets had to forage lower on the food chain for prey such as krill, which aren’t as nutritious. The diet of Marbled Mur­relets shifted, and their feathers silently recorded the change. The research sug­gested that foraging lower on the food chain may have contributed to the Mar­bled Murrelet’s decline.


S. G. DuBay and C. C. Fuldner. 2017. Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environ­mental policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114:11321–11326.

H. Becker and S. R. Beissinger. 2006. Centennial decline in the trophic level of an endangered seabird after fisheries decline. Conservation Biology 20:470–479.

Both the murrelet and the sooty-birds studies bring old specimens back to life. DuBay says the specimens in his study are “a visual connection, linking the birds back to the really smoky, sooty skies that the birds were flying through.”

DuBay’s and Fuldner’s research was published on October 9, the same day that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the repeal of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. DuBay says that’s a poignant coincidence.

“The birds in our study that are the dirtiest are from a period when there were limited regulations,” says Du­Bay. “That, in and of itself, should say something.”

Rusty Blackbirds are Rising from Obscurity but Falling in Number

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 16:11
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From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

I was stepping gingerly across a mat of floating vegetation—the roots of sedges, grass, moss, and even a few blooming yellow buttercups tangled together, their bond just secure enough to hold my weight. The surface of the fen bounced like a waterbed. Then my right leg broke through to dangle in the cold and frightening depths. That’s when I realized, with crashing certainty, just why Rusty Blackbirds were such a mystery.

“These birds,” I muttered as I scrambled to solid ground, “are just too damned hard to study.”

That day, a decade and a half ago, I was searching for Rusty Blackbird nests in a boreal forest bog in Alaska’s interior. The vast wetland complex south of Fairbanks, along the Tanana River, is a stronghold for the species, and dozens of pairs were scattered over the study area. At the time, I was a research biologist for the Alaska Bird Observatory, and I was working with my field crew as part of a growing field effort to understand the breeding ecology of the Rusty Blackbird. There was a sense of urgency in our work, because Rusty Blackbirds were declining, precipitously. And no one had the faintest idea why.

During the breeding season, female Rusty Blackbirds are dark gray. Photo by Daniel Jauvin/Macaulay Library.Males are an iridescent black during the spring and summer. Photo by David W. Shaw.

Rusty Blackbirds aren’t exciting to look at. In summer, the females of this medium-sized songbird are dark gray, and the males jet, iridescent black. Their only flash of color is a bright lemon eye that glows like a neon sign. The “Rusty” part of the name derives from their winter plumage, which, though hardly flashy, is mottled with dull red. They aren’t attention grabbing, and they don’t show up on the glossy covers of wildlife magazines. Even among birders, Rusty Blackbirds are often overlooked.

Therein lies the problem.

For decades, as the population of Rusty Blackbirds collapsed, no one noticed. Their summer homes in remote boreal wetlands are rarely surveyed, and in winter they are scattered across the swamps, suburbs, and agricultural areas of the southern United States. Summer and winter, they are a bird species largely ignored.

That changed in 1999 when the scientific journal Conservation Biology published a paper entitled On the Decline of the Rusty Blackbird. Written by the late, great, Smithsonian ornithologist Russell Greenberg and his coauthor Sam Droege of the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the paper compiled data from Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, references to the species in the literature, regional checklists, and historical surveys. When combined and modeled over time, the data clearly showed that Rusty Blackbirds were in the midst of a mysterious collapse. Since the mid-20th century, Rusties had lost 90 percent of their population, Greenberg and Droege estimated.

Now, nearly 20 years later, scientists understand a bit more about why these cryptic blackbirds of boreal wetlands are disappearing. Yet the conservation answers, like the birds, are both hard to find and easy to overlook.

Rusty Blackbird breeding habitat consists of boreal wetlands, such as Alaska’s Tanana River Flats. Photo by David W. Shaw. Unraveling the Mystery Behind Rusty Declines

“With Rusties, we were starting at square one,” says Dean Demarest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta.

Demarest sits on the steering committee of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group, a loose collaboration of researchers and conservationists in the United States and Canada who came together in 2005 to study the species, raise awareness, and understand their mysterious decline.

“One of the biggest accomplishments has been engaging researchers, graduate students, and the public,” he says. While Demarest has worked to garner financial and public support for Rusty Blackbirds, and to facilitate the research effort, it’s the ecologists in the field who started piecing the mystery together.

Steven Matsuoka of the U.S. Geological Survey led the first field efforts to study Rusty Blackbirds near Anchorage, Alaska, around the turn of the millennium. He has continued to study the birds over the past two decades. In addition to being a field biologist, Matsuoka is also an innovative songbird ecologist who uses advanced statistical modeling. If anybody knows about a smoking gun for Rusty declines, it’d be Matsuoka.

“I don’t think there’s a smoking gun,” Matsuoka said. “It seems to be many things…” He paused: “There’s a lot going on with Rusties.”

As Matsuoka says, Rusty Blackbirds have it coming at them from all directions. Polluted rainfall, climate change, habitat loss, and even blackbird control programs have taken a toll on the species. The population, he says, is still in collapse.

“The half-life of the Rusty Blackbird is about 19 years,” he said, citing a statistic from the bird conservation group Partners in Flight. In other words, in 19 years Rusties will lose another 50 percent of their population if current trends continue. PIF estimates the overall Rusty population at about 5 million birds, which sounds like a lot—but it’s one-fifth the population of Eastern Meadowlarks, and less than 1 percent of the number of Red-winged Blackbirds in North America.

“They are now so rare that they are hard to survey,” said Matsuoka. “That makes estimating populations, and management, difficult.”

More On Rusty Blackbirds and Pollution

While Matsuoka is hesitant to offer a specific cause for the decline of Rusty Blackbirds, other researchers are more willing to lay blame.

“I think it’s safe to say that methylmercury contamination is playing an important part in the decline of Rusty Blackbirds,” said Dr. David Evers of the Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute. Evers analyzed the contaminant load of Rusty Blackbirds across their range by comparing feather and blood samples from breeding blackbirds in Alaska and northeastern North America. He found elevated levels of methylmercury in the eastern breeders.

Mercury in the environment comes from a number of places, but coal burning power plants are one of the biggest sources. Vented into the air with the fumes, mercury attaches to water and falls with rain. After it reaches the ground, the mercury is converted by microorganisms in the sediment into CH3Hg—the far more toxic methylmercury.

Methylmercury does not break down easily in the environment, and it bioaccumulates, or works its way up the food chain. The coal-generated electricity that powers the industrial hubs of the Midwest and East have led to high levels of mercury contamination in rainfall throughout the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. That mercury, deposited from raindrops above into the boreal wetlands of the region, becomes the toxic methylmercury. In short order, the poison works its way into aquatic invertebrates and from there into Rusty Blackbirds.

“Songbirds, in general, are sensitive to mercury contamination,” Evers said. Despite their small size, insectivorous songbirds (or birds that eat insects) are relatively high on the food chain. Since mercury increases by an order of magnitude with each link, even small-bodied birds can accumulate high levels of methylmercury as they eat more and more insects.

Surprisingly, though, Evers isn’t lamenting a doom-and-gloom future of abandoned Rusty Blackbird nests and mercury-poisoned chicks.

“I’m optimistic about the future of Rusty Blackbirds,” he said. “The United Nations Minamata Convention on Global Mercury went into full effect in 2017, and it’s strong enough that global mercury pollution should be dramatically reduced.”

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The Minamata Convention, named after a famously toxic Japanese city, mandates a global reduction in mercury pollution. Even under the current deregulatory political climate in the United States, Evers contends there is enough momentum in the agreement to substantially reduce global mercury levels.

Rusty Blackbirds, Evers predicts, should squeeze through this pinchpoint with peak levels of methylmercury in the environment already in the past.

“I’m a hopeful person,” Evers said. “I think nature is resilient.”

Bird biologist Chris McClure has a different perspective about Rusty Blackbird declines.

“I think it’s certainly a climate-change thing,” said McClure. Though he’s now the director of global conservation science for the Peregrine Fund, McClure’s doctoral research in the late 2000s looked into the decline of Rusties.

McClure’s work, published with coauthors in the journal Ecology and Evolution, contains a distressing figure— a map, based on Breeding Bird Survey routes, that shows how Rusty Blackbirds have been extirpated across the southern part of their range over the last few decades. Wetlands in the southern boreal forest have been hit hard by industrial development and habitat loss during this time.

Since the mid-1900s, 30 percent of North America’s boreal wetlands have dried up. So it’s not surprising that Rusty Blackbirds and several other bird species of the boreal bogs—including Horned Grebes, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Solitary Sandpipers—are declining.

What About Rusty Blackbird Winter Habitat? This map, generated from eBird models, shows where Rusty Blackbirds are most concentrated within their annual range. Darker shades of each color indicate more birds. On their breeding range (red) the birds have disappeared from wetlands in southern parts of the boreal forest, and are now clustered in the far north. Map graphic by Jillian Ditner and Matt Strimas-Mackey. Data courtesy of eBird. Photo of Rusty Blackbird by Jeff Stacey/Macaulay Library.

It doesn’t get any easier for Rusties when they fly south for the winter.

Jim Johnson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage studies Rusty Blackbird migration ecology. He has equipped birds with small data recorders called geolocators, which track where the birds go during migration. The caveat is that these recorders, which attach to the bird via an elastic harness, must be recovered to collect the data. So the same bird must be captured twice—once to outfit the blackbird with the device and again to retrieve it, download the data, and see where it’s been.

That second capture has proven tricky. After deploying 17 geolocators, Johnson and his team have recovered only three. Though a disappointingly small sample size for their effort, the data do hint at something interesting.

“All three of these Rusty Blackbirds,” Johnson said, “made a lengthy mid-migration stop on their way south.”

These three blackbirds all bred in Alaska, migrated south, and paused for a few weeks in the eastern Great Plains before moving on to their primary wintering grounds in the lower Mississippi Valley. Johnson and his collaborators are continuing their research to better understand these mid-migration stops, and whether masses of Rusty Blackbirds are making them. But the initial findings raise the possibility that prairie wetlands are an important part of the Rusty Blackbird’s migration strategy, and thereby also important for conservation of the species.

Meanwhile, on the wintering grounds, things are getting weird. Rusty Blackbirds are assumed to be wetland dependent. But the dissertation work of Patti Wohner, who studied Rusties while earning her PhD at the University of Georgia, throws swamp water at that assumption.

“Their main food sources on my study area (in South Carolina) were pecans and earthworms,” said Wohner. Pecans?

“Big flocks were associated with pecan trees in suburban areas and also in commercial pecan groves,” she said. Rusty Blackbird bills aren’t strong enough to crack the tough shells of the pecans, so the birds concentrated in places where the nuts fell on driveways or roads. After passing cars crushed them, Rusty Blackbirds moved in to forage on the broken pieces.

“The sites where the pecans were available were relatively rare, but important,” she said.

Worms, such as nonnative night crawlers and native red worms, made up the other part of the Rusty Blackbird’s winter diet. Rusty Blackbirds were unexpected early birds in the suburban yards of homes around Greenville, South Carolina.

“It seems,” Wohner said, “that suburban areas are good habitat for Rusties as long as they had three things: a nearby wetland of some type, pecan trees, and grassy areas where there was a source of earthworms.”

Wohner is another optimist about this species.

“Overall, the Rusty Blackbirds I studied seemed to be doing quite well.”

Patti Wohner found that wintering Rusty Blackbirds will collect pecans that fall on roads and break open. Photo by Eric Heisey/Macaulay Library. A Thousand Cuts

The eastern breeding population is being hit the hardest, perhaps by a combination of methylmercury pollution and climate change. The species may have a unique migration strategy, which raises conservation questions during their spring and fall journeys. And on the wintering areas, the species takes advantage of opportunistic foods and habitats and seems to be doing fairly well.

So where does that leave the outlook for the bird? As I reflect on my days spent splashing through boreal bogs, slogging through some of the first fieldwork on Rusties, the bits of knowledge accumulated thus far fit within a larger context. For decades, Rusties were completely unnoticed as their population crumpled. When Greenberg and Droege rang the alarm bells, scientists lacked even a basic understanding of Rusty Blackbird ecology. But over the past decade, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group and scientists from across North America have collaborated to begin piecing the puzzle together.

In conservation science, knowledge is power. And now scientists know that the decline of the Rusty Blackbird is caused by a thousand cuts rather than a single smoking gun. While that seems much worse than a single cause, most researchers are cautiously optimistic about the ability of the species to persist in the future. Jim Johnson of the USFWS noted that recent survey data seemed to indicate Rusty Blackbird populations in Alaska and the Yukon are fairly stable and productive.

But, Johnson cautioned, the data are scarce. More science is needed, which means more scientists are needed to slog through boggy wetlands in search of the cryptic blackbird with a lemon-yellow eye.

The Araripe Manakin, Keeper of the Spring Waters

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 10:38
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From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
One of the Most Exciting Ornithological Finds -->

To see one of the most exciting ornithological finds of the past 20 years, I had to stand in line. In front of me stood a man in a tank-top and flip-flops. Behind me were two women with beach towels slung over their shoulders. Beside them were giddy children hopping up and down, about to burst with anticipation.

I was giddy, too. But not for the same reason. When the water park opened for business at 10 a.m., the line filed through the turnstile and down the walkway. At a little thatched hut selling flippers and swim goggles, the flip-flop crowd funneled left, toward the waterslides. I bore right onto a clean, paver-stone pathway enshrouded by jungle trees.

Almost immediately, a friendly song chimed from the trees: too-too, toot-toodle-oo! My companion, Brazilian biologist Alberto Campos, whispered one word: Soldadinho!

Soldadinho do Araripe is the Brazilian common name for the Araripe Manakin. First described in a scientific journal in 1998, the soldadinho (or “little soldier”) quickly made the most-wanted list for globe-trotting birders touring Brazil. As an isolated endemic, it’s a rare get for any life list—a manakin that in all the world lives only in a 30-mile-long forested stretch in the northeastern state of Ceara, along the eastern side of the Araripe plateau. The bird’s true appeal, though, is not its rarity, but its striking beauty.

The male Araripe Manakin has a crest that "shines like a red bulb."A female Araripe Manakin wears more camouflaged colors and has a smaller crest.

Another cheerful song burst from the trees, and a songbird’s silhouette flashed to a bare branch overhead. I glassed it through binoculars to see a bird cloaked in bright white plumage, with a dazzling crimson headdress—indeed clad in an officer’s regalia. The soldadinho looked left, then right, granting me a view of its profile and its blazing red pompadour. Looking at this brilliant bird is a bit like looking at the sun; red spots lingered in my eyes, emblazoned, for a few moments after the manakin flew away.

A gurgling brook flowed alongside the paver-stone path where I stood. About 500 feet upstream, there was a grotto that hid a spring, the source of water for this moist ecosystem, and this water park. Herein lies the conflict for soldadinho, the reason it’s an IUCN Red List critically endangered species. Both bird and people need this water: the manakins nest by the water and only live in wet forests; the people tap into the water for all their human endeavors—agriculture, urban growth, water parks.

But the manakin and the people here are not adversaries. In fact, the people celebrate the bird, and the bird may be the best hope for keeping the water flowing for the people.

Along Brazil’s Araripe plateau runs a 30-mile stretch of wet forest—the only habitat on Earth for the Araripe Manakin.Listen A Fire-Crested Bird

Alberto Campos had his own luminous experience with the Araripe Manakin back in 2003, when he drove eight hours from the regional capital of Fortaleza to investigate reports of a new bird species discovered in the Chapada do Araripe, or Araripe plateau.“The first time I put my eyes on it … it shines, you know? That crest shines like a red bulb,” he recalls. “It’s an amazing, memorable experience.”

The first time I put my eyes on it … it shines, you know? That crest shines like a red bulb.
~ Alberto Campos

At that time, Campos was a biologist who had cofounded a conservation group called Aquasis on Brazil’s northeastern coast to help endangered marine animals such as dolphins and manatees. Now, a decade and a half later, Campos was taking me on a tour of his group’s on-the-ground conservation efforts for the Araripe Manakin, 300 miles away from the ocean. If it seems odd that a marine nonprofit would become the most ardent advocate for a forest songbird, the explanation lies in the species’ biology—because this bird relies on water every bit as much as a manatee.

This video offers a rare glimpse of life at an Araripe Manakin nest, where the highly camouflaged female provides all the care for the young.

“We have found nests not exactly on top of running water, but really, really close to it, right above,” says Campos. He says that along streams grown over with vegetation, the birds construct small nest cups among the vines and branches that dangle just above the stream’s surface.

Rainwater falls on the top of the Araripe plateau, percolates into the soil, collects in underground pools, and then migrates sideways to emerge as springs on the side of the plateau—a process that can take thousands of years. View larger image.

And yet, this wet-forest manakin lives in the caatinga biome, a semiarid region about 7 degrees south of the equator. To be precise, the Araripe Manakin lives in a moist-forest oasis in the middle of a scrub-brush landscape, a topographical peculiarity that’s like a Hawaiian cloud forest dropped into the sagebrush country of Utah. The moisture comes courtesy of the chapada, an old Portuguese word for plateau. The tabletop of the chapada acts like a 4,000-square-mile rainwater catch basin. Whenever rain hits the ground on the plateau, it slowly percolates into the soil and collects into underground pools. The water then migrates sideways, reemerging as hundreds of natural springs on the plateau’s side to feed a humid forest habitat. It may take thousands of years for raindrops to funnel from the chapada’s dusty, scrub-brush top to the slopeside gushing founts amid gallery forests.

Araripe Manakins only occur in these wet forests on the side of the Chapada do Araripe, a global range about half the area of Manhattan. Because this bird is tucked away in a relative postage stamp of South American forest, it wasn’t described by science until the very end of the 20th century—though it was almost discovered twice before. In 1860, a Brazilian zoologist from the natural history museum in Rio de Janeiro collected 4,000 specimens of various wildlife species on a biological survey of the Chapada do Araripe. His collection almost certainly included an Araripe Manakin skin, but today that skin may be lying on the bottom of the ocean. The expedition’s boat was lost in a shipwreck on the return to Rio. Then in 1930, a German crew of geologists, entomologists, and ornithologists made a collecting sweep through the area. But that collection at the University of Freiburg was bombed out in World War II.

They warned young Francisco … not to make this bird angry, because it was o dono do agua—owner of the waters.

As is often the case, locals knew about this bird long before scientists discovered it. An old-timer who lives in the city of Crato, at the bottom of the chapada, tells of the stern warnings he encountered as a young boy prowling the forested slopes with his machete in the 1950s. Now 77 years old, Francisco Xavier Rodrigues says that in those days people up in the hills told of a red-headed bird that lived at the springs, the galo de nascente (or cock of the springs). They warned young Francisco not to shoot at this bird with his slingshot, not to make this bird angry, because it was o dono do agua—owner of the waters. If the bird is disturbed, they would say, the water will stop flowing.

Local talk of a strange red-headed bird attracted a college biology student named Weber de Girao Silva to the Araripe plateau in 1996. Silva was invited by his professor, Artur Galileu Miranda Coelho of the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, to go birding near the grotto. There was no water park here then, no buildings or paved pathways, just a dirt trail along a forested stream.

Ornithologist Weber de Girao Silva stands near the place where he discovered the Araripe Manakin in 1996. Twenty years ago this region was forested, but today the area of Silva’s discovery is a water park. In a small private forest reserve in a corner of the park, some manakins still persist.

“Let’s go to the exact spot,” said Silva when he joined me at the water park. Today he’s a middle-aged ornithologist with salt-and-pepper hair. He hopped over a guardrail, off the paver-stone path, and scurried uphill, stopping about 100 yards up the slope above me to brace himself against a tree. A tangle of jungle vines cascaded down the rock face behind him. When Silva leaned against that tree two decades ago, he recorded science’s first official sighting of the Araripe Manakin—the one that stuck.

“We saw a white bird fly onto a branch,” Silva reminisced about the day that changed his life. “In this moment, the sun was behind the bird, and the light on the crest lit up like a lamp … o fogo.” (Like fire.)

“And Galileu asked me, ‘What the hell is that?’ I answered, ‘This is not a usual thing.’” Then Silva glanced down at his arm: “My hairs are raising up, right now, as I tell this story!”

News of the discovery made the local newspaper, but the article ended on this ominous note:

Although unknown by science, the species is already threatened. The place where this specimen was found will be transformed into a water resort, laments Galileu.

Lament was all the college professor and his student could do. The water park developer was a powerful local mayor. The park was built in 2000, with the stream from the grotto supplying all of the water for the pools and slides.

Silva is still troubled today by how it all went down, the construction of a water park at the discovery site of a new bird species. He felt powerless to stop it.

“I was 20 years old,” he says heavily today. “It was a gamble.”

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It was Silva who called Campos at the nonprofit Aquasis and asked about adding the Araripe Manakin to their endangered species program. After seeing the bird himself, Campos agreed and hired Silva as the chief ornithologist on a project to save the bird.

A big part of that project has been local outreach. Aquasis has conducted several public meetings on Araripe Manakin conservation—meetings that have been attended by representatives from Arajara Park, the park that emerged from where the bird was discovered.

Arajara is the only one of five water parks in the region to get involved in manakin management, making the trail to the grotto into a private forest reserve and maintaining the native vegetation of fruiting trees and shrubs that are the mainstay of the manakin’s diet. Arajara has even adopted the bird as one of its attractions, hosting birding tour groups and selling Araripe Manakin T-shirts in the souvenir store.

“If we can put people in touch with this bird, with the nature, we want to give people that experience,” said Caroline Sambaio Saraiva, a daughter of the now-deceased park developer. She currently assists her mother in managing Arajara. “There are many water parks in the world, but you cannot copy this forest. I think we can offer both, a water park and environmental sustainability.”

“We have found nests not exactly on top of running water, but really, really close to it, right above,” says Aquasis biologist Alberto Campos. He notes that Araripe Manakins tend to build their Lilliputian nest cups woven from leaves among the vines and branches that dangle just above the surface of streams.Females incubate and take care of nestlings, while the male devotes his time to vocally defending his territory—singing more than 500 songs per hour.

Today Araripe Manakins persist in the park, their cheery songs a testament to the species’ adaptability as long as accommodations for its habitat can be made. And even Campos admits, Arajara is a great place to see this bird.

“In other forests, Araripe Manakins stay up high in the canopy,” he says, but with the elevated walkways here, “they come right down to see you at eye level. It’s perfect for photos.”

I spent that afternoon luxuriating in Araripe Manakins all over the trail—watching one land in a tree branch below the walkway so I could see how the crimson ribbon runs down its back, listening to a constant toodle-oo chorus from the treetops. Finally I headed with Campos over to the restaurant hut for cheese tortillas and a beer. Pop music thumped in the background, punctuated by happy shrieks from splashing kids.

“Some people who favor the environment want to remove this place, but that won’t work,” Campos said frowning. “BUT, if we could stop building water parks … a freeze, no more parks. And manage the ones that are here sustainably. We can live with that.”

Campos took a sip of his beer and watched a little boy shoot down a waterslide and out of the mouth of a dinosaur statue. He smiled: “This park makes people happy.”

Batateiras was once a rushing river. Today, it is a tangle of PVC and rubber pipes sprouting out of aged concrete cisterns. “People grab the water at the top, because they are afraid somebody else will grab it,” says Aquasis biologist Alberto Campos.The area has a history of water conflicts. Some pipe taps are wrapped in barbed wire so no one can them off.Water diverted from the land is used for both essential and recreational activity. Here, a pipe brings water down to a backyard pool.PreviousNext

“The General Is Saying to the People, ‘Protect the Water!'”

Water parks are not the most pressing threat to the Araripe Manakin.

To show me what’s sucking the bird’s moist-forest habitat dry, Campos took me to what was once the largest freshwater spring in all of the Araripe plateau, the Batateiras Nascente.

In the 1850s, Batateiras was a rushing river. Today, it’s a tangle of PVC and rubber pipes sprouting out of aged concrete cisterns. Some of the pipes are brown; some blue, some black. Together, they snaked down a dry streambed toward the city of Crato.

The population in the city of Crato has expanded by more than 30 percent in the last two decades. As more people seek homes, residential areas are pushing up into the hills of the Chapada do Araripe—and into the habitat of the Araripe Manakin.

It was a ramshackle setup. Many of the pipes had sprung leaks; miniature water fountains sprayed up from tiny punctures. Many of the taps at the cistern were wrapped in chains and locks.

“Fifty years ago, there was a lot of water conflict right here,” Campos said. “People killed each other because somebody turned off his tap.”

Campos picked his way among the pipes and bent down to get a closer look at the biggest one, about the diameter of a flagpole. He frowned and adjusted his white baseball cap, which he wore the entire week I spent with him. I followed one PVC pipe with my eyes, a skinny blue one that veered from the cluster and through the gate of a walled residence just below the spring. Inside was a simple white stucco house with a dirt yard. The wall was crowned with barbed wire and spiked with jagged fragments of broken glass.

But from behind the wall, I could hear the gentle singsong of children’s voices: um, dois, três…

They were kids counting off for hide-and-seek, probably with parents who just want water for their family.

You can tell who gets the water by the size of the pipe. The large pipes go to wealthy landowners, small pipes to poor families. You can see the entire social strata right here.
~Alberto Campos

You can tell who gets the water by the size of the pipe,” said Campos, standing up after inspecting the cluster. “The large pipes go to wealthy landowners, small pipes to poor families. You can see the entire social strata right here.”

This is Campos’s adversary in the campaign to save the Araripe Manakin, and it is not as simple as a single oil company, like the one he defeated in court on behalf of manatees. At Batateiras and springs all across the Araripe plateau, Campos and Aquasis are facing off with societal forces.

Agriculture is the biggest draw on the water in this region. An estimated 70 percent of water demand is from farms, mostly for irrigation on banana plantations. Residential water is estimated to account for about 20 percent, with the remaining 10 percent taken by industry, including water parks.

By law, 20 percent of the water flow from springs should be off limits to humans so the water can flow freely and provide environmental benefits, such as ambient moisture for forests and habitat for wildlife. But that’s not happening at most springs in the Araripe plateau, certainly not here at Batateiras.

Jose Yarley Brito is the man nominally in charge of the water at Batateiras and many other springs in the Araripe. He is president of the Sociedade Anônima de Água e Esgoto do Crato, the city’s water management agency. But he readily admits his charge is to manage water for people, not forests or manakins.

Alberto Campos stands in the forests at Batateiras Nascente, surrounded by water pipes that carry water to the city of Crato. Photo by Gustave Axelson.

“Legally, my priority is the water supply for humans,” Brito said. “The bird is not my priority. But, I worry about the bird, too.”

Brito’s dilemma is that his agency was established after these tangles of pipes had already taken root at Crato’s springs. And, Campos says, Brito’s agency lacks the resources for proper water regulation and enforcement.

Year by year, there are more and more people who want the water. Crato’s population has grown by 34 percent over the past two decades. Brito shrugs his shoulders at what his agency can do in the face of this growing base of water consumers: “If more people are moving upslope for their homes, that can’t be stopped. The only person who can stop the population growth in Crato is God.”

Across the Araripe plateau, the springs supply water not just to Crato, but also to two other nearby towns, the regional metropolis of Fortaleza 300 miles away, and the neighboring state of Pernambuco (courtesy of private companies that truck the water across state lines).

Aquasis estimates that more than 2 million people depend on the Araripe’s springs for their livelihoods. And a crisis may be looming, because the water is disappearing. Over the past 100 years, hundreds of water springs in this region have lost an average of 75 percent of their outflow. Batateiras has lost 36 percent of its water flow over just the past 12 years.

And yet, Brito earnestly believes that there is enough water for everybody. The problem, he says, is that the water use is not sustainable. Bananas are a very thirsty crop, Brito says. He suggests farmers could switch to other crops that would not take so much water. And even if there are more and more people, they can learn to be wiser with their water.

On this point, Brito hopes that the bird that is not his priority can do his agency a favor. He hopes the story of the Araripe Manakin, an endangered bird utterly reliant on free-flowing water, will move people to reconsider their water use, and open their minds to water management.

Brito is a cheerleader for Aquasis’s efforts to gain attention for the bird’s conservation plight.

“He is a messenger to us from the springs,” Brito said. “He is called the soldier, but we should give him a higher rank. Make him a general. And the general is saying to the people, ‘Protect the water!’”

Aquasis’s Oasis Reserve is a rich forest full of biodiversity.Though the reserve was established for Araripe Manakins, its ecosystem benefits are much broader. The reserve harbors more than 130 bird species as well as many mammals and reptiles.A common marmoset in the Oasis Reserve.A fer-de-lance—one of the most infamous snakes of the Neotropics—was almost invisible on the forest floor.One of the many species of flowering plants in the Aquasis Oasis Reserve.A fern in the Aquasis’s Oasis Reserve.PreviousNext A New Water Model Brings Hope to the Ecosystem

For a more sporting Araripe Mankin experience—something truer to the bird than the amusement-park convenience at Arajara—Campos arranged for me to visit Aquasis’s Oasis Reserve.

The 300-acre reserve was established with funding from the Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy, which took the lead in underwriting two land purchases: one in 2014 that protected a breeding area for Araripe Manakins, and another in 2016 that doubled the size of the reserve. ABC also provided funds for habitat rehabilitation on this abandoned sugar farm, including the planting of more than 10,000 tree saplings. More than just a reserve, Oasis is also a kind of experimental forest.

To a first-time visitor from above the 40th parallel north, it’s a jungle that gives off the unnerving vibe that it’s trying to kill you. The deeply gouged dirt road winding up toward the reserve is a favorite hangout of sunbathing boa constrictors. Once inside the darkened forest, there are trees with spikes growing from their trunks. And more snakes: Along the hiking trail, a mottled brown fer-de-lance—one of the most feared Neotropical pit vipers—was so camouflaged and neatly coiled beneath a tree root that I never would have seen it until it was too late.

Thankfully, George saw it. George Leandro Barbosa is another Aquasis staffer who served as my guide at Oasis. He once lived among indigenous peoples in the Amazonian interior. And he, too, wore a white hat, a bucket fishing hat. When I first arrived at the reserve, Barbosa checked to see that my snake gaiters were properly secured, then we set off into a jungle thick with vines that dangled from the treetops to the forest floor.

We stuck to trails that ran alongside levadas, small irrigation ditches that date back to the sugar plantations of the 19th century. A market crash in the 1980s drove sugar out of this area, but the levadas still carry water to local farms.

Aquasis biologist Weber Silva has closely studied the breeding biology of Araripe Manakins in their wet-forest habitat. Silva says the red head of the male Araripe Manakin is derived from pigments in the brightly colored berries that the birds eat. Head color plays an important role in sexual selection. The males seek perches in forest openings, where sunlight shines through the canopy and reflects off their blazing pompadours.

In two hours of hiking the levadas, I heard that friendly song of the soldadinho everywhere above me—Yoo-hoo! Toodle-toodle-oo! But my eyes couldn’t catch it, save for a few glimpses of something white flitting away. The forest was thick with other birds, though, and lots of surprises upon further investigation. A closer look at a dove-sized silhouette perched on a branch revealed a shimmering Blue-crowned Trogon with iridescent azure head. The splashing sound of rocks being tossed into the stream turned out to be a massive hummingbird: a Planalto Hermit—twice the size of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird—that was dive-bombing into the water, rising up to hang suspended and dripping in midair for a moment, then bombing into the water again.

Finally, a white flash zipped to a vine bridge suspended between two trees up in the canopy. I glassed it just long enough to see that brilliant red dragoon’s crest atop the little soldier’s head. With a hop he did an about-face on the vine, now facing me, and then—toodle-oo!—another white flash with a flap of his wings and he disappeared. The entire encounter lasted five seconds.

Not coincidentally, we were standing alongside a stretch of levada thick with overhanging plants. About half of the water from the Oasis springs is carried off the property via levada to local farms for irrigation; the other half is piped away. Aquasis’s plan for Oasis habitat rehabilitation calls for planting trees and allowing the levadas to grow over with vegetation, which the group says could increase the total area of Araripe Manakin habitat on the reserve by 20-fold. Aquasis also plans to re-engineer the cisterns near the springs with a more modernized setup that will be more water-efficient. (“No more leaks, like at Batateiras!” Campos says.)

“What we bought was a model, and now we want to show how it works.”
~ Alberto Campos

Campos predicts that the Oasis model of better-managed springs will ultimately increase the water flow available to people: “We can have water collection devices and water management devices. I think it will be more efficient, and I really believe that we can have more water in the lowlands than we have now. That’s something we will prove in maybe three or four years.”

Instead of protecting the Araripe Manakin by locking up habitat across the plateau, Aquasis is betting on this reserve as bird conservation that’s also water conservation.

“We don’t want to buy up all of the manakin’s springs throughout the range. That’s crazy,” Campos says. “What we bought was a model, and now we want to show how it works.”

Brito at the water management agency has provided the permits for Aquasis to re-engineer the waterworks at the Oasis springs, because he is eager to see this model succeed, with the hope that he can take it to other springs throughout the Araripe.

Were the model to be widely adopted, Campos says that even more water benefits would accrue as more Araripe Manakins and other fruit-eating birds resume their ecosystem roles as seed dispersers that propagate and maintain moist forests. More gallery forests would improve water retention across the plateau, through ecosystem services such as holding back flash-flooding.

It turns out that the people up in the hills who warned little boys 60 years ago not to shoot slingshots at the red-headed birds had it right all along. The soldadinho is the keeper of the water.

“What do you do when your whole study area is burned?” asked researcher Milene Gaiotti after a forest fire in 2015. Minor Victories, Major Setbacks

Milene Gaiotti does not share the sunny optimism of Alberto Campos and Aquasis. A researcher from the Universidade de Brasilia who has studied genetics and conservation strategies for the Araripe Manakin for more than seven years, Gaiotti has seen too many of her research sites destroyed to have much hope for the future of the species.

In November 2015, Gaiotti arrived at her most prolific research site—a burbling spring where she had tagged more than 200 Araripe Manakins—to find it on fire.

“Araripe Manakins used to love to bathe there,” she said.

A nearby landowner had set a burn to clear brush, but it swept into a massive hillside fire. Gaotti could do nothing but watch her study site incinerate. She poured out her grief in a Facebook post that night:

Is with tears in my eyes that I write this … I meet the firemen now and there are six!!! SIX people with water bags controlling a huge fire … I’m devastated!

Across the manakin’s range—which is just those 30 miles on the side of the plateau where moist forest cover is increasingly being deforested and desiccated—the total population is estimated to be fewer than 800 birds. That’s based on surveys funded by Birdlife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme and conducted by Aquasis’s Weber Silva in 2015–16. The surveys measured a 12 percent population decline among Araripe Manakins, when compared with previous surveys just two years earlier.

Dive deeper into Silva’s surveys, and the declines at each spring where Araripe Manakins breed is a litany of threats to the species. One site dropped from 27 to 20 birds due to fire; another dropped from 21 to 15 after a new housing development; and one site dwindled from five Araripe Manakins to only two, as more and more pipes suck the stream level dry.

Clearing for agriculture is one of many threats to Araripe Manakin habitat. Many times the clearing is conducted via fires that can burn out of control, scorching habitat across a much larger area than was intended for cattle or crops.

Now the most immediate threat to the species, according to Gaotti and Silva, is a gap that’s forming in the very middle of the Araripe Manakin’s range. There are four water springs within this gap, but the habitat has been degraded by clearing for cattle grazing and water piping. Only one manakin population is left in this 5-mile stretch. Should that population blink out, the scientists say, the contiguous distribution of the species along the plateau will be cut in two, with the stranded populations on either end at risk of genetic isolation—an accelerant toward extinction.

Aquasis is responding to these threats wherever and however it can. It hired private firefighters to augment the local fire brigade. It conducts awareness campaigns in communities near Araripe Manakin springs and consults with landowners on making accommodations for the birds. Nearly every week, Campos and Silva meet with one manner of government official or another about the conservation plight of the Araripe Manakin, continuously lobbying for help, even if their past experience has been like lobbying a cloudless sky for rain to relieve a drought.

There have been minor victories in working with government officials, often followed by major setbacks. In 2007 Aquasis conducted habitat surveys of the entire Araripe plateau and presented maps and a proposal to government leaders to fully protect the upper forested slopes of the chapada. The plan rapidly gained approvals at the local and state levels and seemed headed toward the creation of a fully protected area by the federal environmental minister at that time. But then an economic downturn struck, followed by turmoil and turnover in the federal government, and Aquasis’s plan was shelved.

It was that disheartening experience that caused Aquasis to shift strategies toward creating the Oasis Reserve as a model. But some Oasis neighbors, like people everywhere, are leery of change.

This place can be dangerous. There is violence. But this is why we are here.
~Weber Silva

After the reserve acquisition, Silva drew up a plan to renovate the spring’s cisterns and more efficiently distribute water into the levadas. He went to work building a small pilot project, a new pipe system to feed just one of the levadas. One day he arrived to see the entire system smashed up, the pipes ripped out.

Silva had been asking around on nearby farms for a worker he could hire to help him with his pilot project, and he guesses that’s how word got around that Aquasis was going to try something new with water management. Whoever ripped up the pipes didn’t even give it a chance to see how it would affect their water supply, good or bad. They wanted to destroy it as a new idea.

As Silva stood there looking at the smashed-up pipes, the farm laborer he had hired told him he was lucky. Then the laborer spoke of the time when, as a child, he watched his father back down from a water dispute at the barrel of a gun.

“This place can be dangerous. There is violence,” Silva told me with a discouraged sigh when recounting his experience. “But,” he said, fixing his eyes on me, “this is why we are here.”

A graffiti homage to the Araripe Manakin on a wall on the outskirts of the city of Crato. A Flame-Headed Spirit Becomes a Local Celebrity

On my last evening in Crato, I went downtown looking for a plate of feijoada, the Brazilian national dish of black bean and pork stew. As I walked the city’s plaza, poking into this restaurant and that, there were Araripe Manakins everywhere.

A soldadinho made of decorative ceramic tiles at the entrance to an ice-cream shop. An Araripe Manakin decal perched on the door of a cab at the taxi stand. A tribute to O Soldadinho in a mural on the side of a coffee shop.

Ten years ago Aquasis launched a community pride PR campaign for the bird. The city’s tourism department picked up on it and anointed the manakin as an official cultural symbol of Crato. Now this flame-headed spirit of the Araripe spring waters has taken flight in the folk songs strummed in the streets and the street art that shows up overnight on walls. The image of an Araripe Manakin has even been pirated to appear on a billboard promoting a new housing development, the very kind of sprawl that is encroaching on the bird’s habitat.

The Soldadinho do Araripe is a muse for cultura coririense, an inspiration for the cultural enlightenment currently being celebrated by the artists of Crato. Photo by Helio Filho.The Araripe Manakin shows up all over the city, on taxis and street signs and in folk art as murals and graffiti. Photo by Helio Filho.A homeowner has decorated this street number with an Araripe Manakin mosaic. Photo by Helio Filho.Rua Soldadinho do Araripe translates to Street of the Little Soldier of the Araripe. Photo by Helio Filho.PreviousNext

Alberto Campos acknowledges that there is a gap between cultural awareness and people’s actions.

“Ten years ago, nobody knew what an Araripe Manakin was. Now, it’s a local celebrity,” he says. “But just as it took 10 years to make people aware of the manakin, it will take another 10 years to make people change their attitudes and behaviors, change their practices to conserve the forest and the water.”

And so the work goes on for Campos, who says: “I used to be a field biologist, then I became a conservation biologist. Now I feel like I’m a political scientist.”

His comrade Weber Silva has served on 10 planning commissions for various jurisdictions. Silva continues to fly to Brasilia, the country’s capital, every few months, as he has restarted talks about a federal fully protected area in the Araripe plateau.

To the left of the Araripe Manakin, the words spray-painted on the wall read: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the manner in which the animals are treated. Respect the nature!” Photo by Helio Filho.

In the city of Crato, there is a new mayor and a new regime. Aquasis and Yarley Brito, the water management agency president, worked with the new Crato environmental minister to create a municipal protected area that will encompass springs and habitat for more than 40 percent of the current Araripe Manakin population. The environmental minister has also pledged to grow the firefighting force, and address the rampant piping of water at the city’s springs.

Campos is encouraged, but wary.

“I don’t count much on politician’s promises anymore,” he said.

Silva is not satisfied: “What we have done until now, I consider a significant amount of work, but it is still not enough to free this species from its fate of extinction within the next 15 years. I believe it is possible to save it, but it will be necessary to do a lot more.”

This past December Silva marked the 21st anniversary of the day he discovered the Araripe Manakin for science. He is 42 years old, and he has been working to save the bird every day since he saw its head light up like a roaring fire, which is to say exactly half of his life. He is a man haunted by the past, who feels compelled to make a future for Soldadinho do Araripe.

“Once someone asked me if I felt special or predestined for having discovered a new bird species,” he says. “It’s quite the opposite. I have always asked myself: ‘What do I have to do in order to live up to this honor, to actually deserve to have discovered this species?’”

Analysis: Reinterpretation of Migratory Bird Treaty Act Runs Counter to Spirit of the Law

Thu, 03/29/2018 - 22:10
A Bald Eagle navigates a wind turbine. Photo by Aaron Winter.

From the Spring 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Over a century ago, then-Congressman John Lacey of Iowa observed of the Passenger Pigeon: “a single generation has seen them swept away.” He wrote at a time when other bird populations—egrets, herons, spoonbills, and more—faced decimation, slaughtered for their plumage. Bird populations once deemed so abundant by John James Audubon that he imagined their populations impossible to annihilate were imperiled. And the Passenger Pigeon, once numbering perhaps in the billions, went extinct.

Eyeing this decimation 100 years ago, federal lawmakers passed one of our nation’s foundational conservation laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Act was emphatic: “unless and except as permitted… it shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill…any migratory bird….” As threats to birds have broadened, the Act has served to protect them not just against hunting without permits, but also against “incidental take” from foreseeable harms like oil spills, wind turbines, and transmission lines.

Oil-soaked pelicans became the public face of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Under the new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, companies responsible for oil spills would not be deemed responsible for a spill's effects on birds. Brown Pelican by Gerrit Vyn.

For at least five decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have understood the Act to prohibit the “taking” and “killing” of birds without permits, whether by hunting or other means. In December 2017, the Department of the Interior abruptly shifted course, when Interior’s Deputy Solicitor issued a memorandum narrowing interpretation of the Act to apply only when killing or “taking” birds is the purpose of the action, as in hunting. This memorandum alters decades of interpretation of how to implement the Act.

Last month, over a dozen former federal officials (including me) sent a letter to current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The letter—signed by Republicans, Democrats, career civil servants who previously oversaw implementation of the Act, and presidential appointees—noted that the Act “was clearly intended to control hunting, but if Congress had meant hunting only, they would have said hunting. They did not. They made it unlawful to kill birds, by any means, at any time.”

More About the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

As with so many matters of law, interpretations of scope vary, and implementation often requires judgement. So it is with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Does killing from collision with high-rise buildings count? What about road kills? What about killing by household pets? The Deputy Solicitor’s memo argues that interpreting the Act to include such actions leads to “absurd results” and turns just about everyone “into a potential criminal.”

But the Solicitor’s memorandum is unhelpful—it establishes Interior Department policy on what constitutes actions covered by the Act, thereby sidestepping some relevant U.S. court decisions while leaving unaddressed many activities that seriously imperil birds and are both foreseeable and avoidable, such as the use of uncovered oilfield evaporation ponds or poorly sited wind turbines. Interpreting the Act to include incidental killing from these sorts of activities has spurred cooperative efforts by commercial fishing operations, energy producers, transmission line operators, and others to implement safeguards to minimize impacts on birds.

A Bald Eagle navigates power lines. Photo by Craig Koppie/USFWS.

Some federal courts have affirmed that the Act covers prohibition of these “incidental” killings, but the courts have not been consistent in this interpretation. Though the Act is very clear in prohibiting the killing and taking of birds “at any time or in any way,” there is room for further consideration of just what is covered by the Act. And there are some legitimate practical implementation questions.

In our letter to Secretary Zinke, the former Interior officials underscored that “the challenging question has always been to what extent the law applies to activities not intended to kill birds, but which are reasonably likely, and indeed, quite likely to kill them.” Addressing this question requires deliberation, inclusive dialogue, and a dose of common sense.

On this front, federal agencies, working with the private sector in implementing the Act, have helped minimize gross negligence and otherwise foreseeable harms to birds. More can always be done to avoid unwarranted prosecutions. But the Deputy Solicitor’s memorandum sets aside the sort of deliberation and collaboration that for decades has sustained bird conservation, replacing it with a narrow interpretation that is neither consistent with the plain language of the law nor conducive to inspiring conservation.

Lynn Scarlett was the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush. She is currently the Co-Chief External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy. Ms. Scarlett also chairs the Science Advisory Board of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.


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