Environmental Issues and Birds

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What makes a bird endangered?

While it’s easy to understand why a bird like the Kakapo is endangered with 86 birds left on the planet, some other species may be harder to figure. So why is a bird such as the ‘Akepa from Hawai’i (estimated population 6,000) more endangered than the Yellow-breasted Bunting (estimated population 2,300+)? The reason is that the number of birds, while an important factor, is only part of the consideration in endangerment. The easiest way to explain the criteria is to review the R-E-D system. R-E-D stands for RARITY - ENDANGERMENT – DIVERSITY. The total number of birds would relate to rarity. The perils facing the birds would be endangerment. Diversity relates to how far the species extend over physical terrain. For instance, a species limited to a single island would be more at risk than a species spread over a continent.

So let’s take the case of the ‘Akepa and Yellow-breasted Bunting and apply the R-E-D system. Rarity: The Bunting population is less than the ‘Akepas. Chalk one up for the Buntings. Endangerment: The ‘Akepa require old growth Koa forests that are almost extinct from the Hawaiian Islands. Also the ‘Akepa has little to no immunity to avian malaria. The Buntings have issues with nesting and human populations which are much less immediate threats than the ‘Akepa so the ‘Akepa wins the “E” round. Diversity: The ‘Akepa are on a secluded part of an island within an specific elevation. The Buntings are throughout North-eastern Europe and Asia. Diversity is clearly an issue with the ‘Akepa. Chalk one up for the ‘Akepa. While the Bunting won the “R” round, the ‘Akepas decisively won the “E” and “D” rounds and that’s why the ‘Akepas are considered Endangered while having greater numbers.

Reasons why Species today are going extinct

It is said that within 100 years, half of all species of life on earth will be extinct. Many industrialized governments tell us its’ natural selection. Is it? Let’s look at the birds that are in danger featured in the Songbird reMix libraries and reasons why they went extinct or are at risk.

“Its extinction was probably largely caused by the destruction of its understory habitat by introduced cattle and deer, and predation of its nests by introduced rats and mongooses.”
“Endangered by massive illegal trapping for the cage bird trade.”
“Vulnerable due to habitat destruction and human disturbances to nesting areas.”
“Endangered due to habitat destruction and alteration.“
“Its extinction was caused by deforestation, hunting and predation by introduced rats and cats.”

Hmmm… starting to notice a trend? Human involvement appears to have a whole lot to do with that “natural selection” argument offered. Okay, fine… so we are causing some species to go extinct. What difference does that make? Well, apart from the obvious moral and quality of life issues, loss of species can harm us and our existence in ways we’re only starting to understand. The birds, as well as bees and butterflies of our planet are important pollinators. Without pollinators, crops may flower but won’t fruit, hence no food makes it to the supermarket making higher prices and less food available. One out of every three spoonfuls of food we eat is polinated. Hmmm, that could be problem, couldn’t it?

Woodpeckers around the globe are in serious decline. So what happens when there are no more woodpeckers to keep beetles and other wood eaters from decimating our forests? When forests go into decline it causes not only lumber shortages but higher forest fire risks. Forests provide shelter and habitat to a number of other creatures. Without the symbiotic bond, both suffer and populations decline more quickly. Even for the less eco friendly, the decline in forests can be troubling. For hunters, poor forest health means less game. For business, it means less product from trees; less timber, less paper, even less maple syrup. For all of us, since scientists consider the forests of the world the earth’s lungs, less forests means less ozone.

Flycatchers spend their days eating mosquitoes and biting insects. Let them go extinct and suddenly, beside more welts on your skin, there’s a big increase in disease; not just for humans but for all creatures, accelerating the extinction patterns.

These three examples are trends we know about… what about all the hundreds of connections we don’t know exist? If we break too many of these, are we tipping the scales towards our own extinction?

Audubon recently reported that based on the last 40 years of data, even common species will not be so common tomorrow. Since 1967 the average population of common birds in the United Sates have fallen 70% from 17.6 million to 5.35 million individuals. Certain areas, such as California, are showing declines as much as 95% in some species. So the threat of extinction isn’t limited to obscure and rare species in someone else’s yard-- it’s the jay in your yard, the hummingbird working your flowers, the finches chattering in your tree… and their survival is your responsibility.

Making Easy Choices

Do great art. This one’s real easy. The primary idea behind the Songbird Remix models is that artist will be able to create imagery using the included bird species and help spread awareness. If you have a Songbird ReMix package, use it and make a difference. Post your artwork featuring endangered birds and tell your audience of their plights. Use the text in the Field Guide or write your own. I guarantee you someone will be moved, and perhaps, moved enough to also make a difference.

Heal the earth one garden at a time. One of the primary causes for endangerment and extinction is habitat loss. While few of us can purchase tracts of land to protect and save habitat, almost everyone can garden. Here’s your opportunity to give back to the planet. If you have planting space, whether it be acres or a couple pots on your balcony, use it and plant native plants. You know, the ones that actually belong there. If you’re not aware of what’s native to your area, contact your local native plant society or do internet searches. Native plants and the birds, insects and other wildlife have ancient relationships. Once you start planting the right plants, the wildlife will rekindle these relationships. From my own experience, our bird count when from 40 different species a year to over 100 within a three year period. The types of butterflies tripled and the native mammals and insects I didn’t even know existed in our area now are frequent visitors.

Provide water sources on your property. Whether it’s a bird bath, a mister, a pond or stream, a water source is probably the most important feature you can put on your property for birds. Feeder, nesting boxes, or secluded cover (trees, shrubs, thickets) are also important. Don’t rake away all the leaves. Natural mulch is important to the health of native plants. For many birds, mulch is their forage area. The National Wildlife Federation (http://www.nwf.org/backyard/) and Audubon (http://www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/) have home wildlife habitat programs. If you have native plants, shelter, food sources and water for wildlife you can be certified as a NWF “Backyard Wildlife Habitat” and for a small fee even get a placard to display out in your yard or on your fence saying so. If neighbors pass by and look at your garden, wondering why it looks a little different (native plants), tell them why. That too, has the snowball effect.

Shop and live green. This is easy to do. If you drink coffee, buy shade grown coffee. Buy organically grown products. Yes, there a little more expensive, but they’re generally better for you. If your city has a recycling service, use it. Also, many power companies offer “green power” options, sign up and if they don’t have one, ask why. Use water, power and gas more wisely. Get energy saving bulbs and water saving toilets and showerheads.

When car shopping, consider less polluting vehicles or hybrids. Drive less by planning and grouping your stops ahead of time.

If you dabble in the stock market, consider a “green” mutual fund and if you own stock, demand at shareholder’ meetings that the company become more eco-friendly. If a company is known to exploit the environment, don’t buy their products and let them know why you’re not. Write them. Call them. Email them. Believe it or not, they are concerned about losing your business which hurts their bottom line.

Pets… Before everyone starts with the hate mail—I do not hate cats. The average well-fed outdoor housecat kills over a dozen songbirds a year. The housecat being well fed, cared for, with a safe place to sleep has a much clearer advantage than real predators (such as coyotes or hawks). While housecats are predators, they are not endemic (meaning they are foreign to the ecosystem). Let me put it another way… what if lions or cougars were let loose in a shopping mall? Would that be “nature taking its’ course”? No, big cats are not endemic to shopping malls or cities; they’re dangerous and don’t belong there. They belong in their natural habitat or locked up in a zoo. So why are domestic cats treated differently? Simply said, cats are a domestic pet that belongs indoors. If you want to give that tired “roam free” argument, get a Cougar or similar cat, then I’ll listen… but my guess is the cougar will be more interested in the people within the house than a songbird outside.

Be aware what goes on in your community. Of all the government layers, the local levels are the most accessible to you. Hearings regarding important decisions in your community happen all the time. Attend some, and make a difference. I attended a hearing regarding the re-landscaping of a local park. Now they’re going to be planting native plants in the park. My wife, neighbors and I commented on a housing project asking for radical zoning changes on an area, which is currently wilderness. Now the city has to consider whether it wants to rubber stamp the developer’s vision or face the wrath of the community. Let your community leaders know you want “smart growth” and expect them to obey their own zoning laws. Building should occur in places where it’s appropriate to build, not because it’s the place where maximum profit can be achieved.

Building in inappropriate places is happening everywhere around the world. People develop areas that are prone to flooding, fire and mudslide, then are shocked when disaster strikes. They build houses on the wilderness edges, then complain about the displaced coyotes and mountain lions attacking their children and pets. They plow over the last refuges that birds have and then complain when they share our outdoor dining facilities or poop on their cars.

The real problem is us; the human race. We’re supposedly the smart ones on the planet, yet we level and pollute our surroundings, then overpopulate it with reckless abandonment and don’t expect consequences. At the rate we’re going, we will soon find our planet on the endangered species list, thanks entirely to ourselves.

Vote Smart. When deciding whom to vote for, don’t trust the mailers or the candidate’s lip service. Just because they may title initiatives “Clean Air” or “Healthy Forests” doesn’t make it so. Check their records. How did they really vote? The internet is great for that. The League of Women Voters (www.lwv.org) even has environmental score cards. The National Audubon Society (http://www.audubon.org/campaign) has an “Advisory” newsletter it emails out that states what going on in the Capital and even provides links to your elected officials along with editable form letters to express your concerns.

Even more important is phone calls and letters to your elected officials expressing how important environmental issues are to you. Consider this, PR firms, lobbyists and others make daily contact with your representatives “helping” to explain the “needs” of their constituents. I’m sure your representatives hearing this day in and day out might start to believe that’s what you want. Call them and set them straight. I constantly hear from some my representives that they "care" about the environment but it isn't a good financial time right now or it will hurt jobs. My answer is there's very little road to kick the can down anymore. Jobs and money won't matter very much if we've killed off any chance for our planet to produce fresh air, water and food. The Native American Cree said it best over a 100 years ago:

Only after the last tree has been cut down.
Only after the last river has been poisoned.
Only after the last fish has been caught.
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

Yes, you can make a difference, if you want to…

Tougher Choices: Look in the Mirror

So far I’ve given easy things to do; ones that require little to no sacrifice. But now let’s go a step further and really look in the mirror. Walk down a path alone. Stop, turn around and see how many footprints you left. Do you tread heavily on this path or do you do try to walk in harmony with your surroundings? Do you give at least as much as you take?

Here’s another statistic using the United States. 80% of the population strongly supports protecting the environment. However, when this protection comes with a price tag, such as higher taxes or land use restrictions, the support drops well under 50%, showing the problem is not just governments and their policies, but the public as well.

“Somebody else will do it.” “There are lots of organizations that help out with that.” “Isn’t that what we pay taxes for?” “Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?” “How can they allow this to happen?” “Don’t they have a conscience?”

Who are we really referring to when we blame “they”?

Take a look in the mirror. “They” is “us”. Take responsibility and start to make changes. You’ll find your neighbors, family and friends will be more likely to also change habits and take responsibility from your example.

No, I’m not saying everyone should get their taxes raised—but why not pay your fair share? For $5 to $20, you (and everyone in your car) can visit one of the US National Parks. That $5 to $20 is not for a day, but a full week. The US government has kept these prices low so that people of modest means can enjoy the natural beauty. Almost every visitor center has a donation box— a day at Disneyland or out at the movies would have cost you considerably more— pay your fair share by donating generously.

As far as organizations helping out—yes, there are a lot of organizations that try to help the environments and there are a few of them that make a difference despite their meager resources. But remember this, there are more organizations bent on exploiting our planet’s natural resources until these resources have been squeezed of their last penny of profit. Their financial resources dwarf the “tree huggers” financial abilities and their tactics are often without conscience whereas an environmental group has to play by the rules and is scrutanized making sure it fights its’ battles fairly.

Frustrate a developer… Of course, not everyone can do this but years ago, two vacant weed lots near our house came up for sale. We (my wife and I) offered an amount that cut deep enough into the developers’ profit margins that they backed away from bidding on it. We then turned the property in a native garden with the intention of never building on the property. We felt it was our turn to give back to the planet. The developer approached us a year later, insisting that I sell one of the lots to him because it didn’t make any sense not to develop it. Standing there arguing with him in our native garden, I realized that greed blinds so many people. He could not see that the property had been developed (into a beautiful native garden) nor could he see the wealth of natural beauty and life that surrounded him.

Population—a sticky issue…. Of course, there’s argument that the planet isn’t over-populated—but then again there’s argument that Global-warming isn’t happening, the dinosaurs are simply a fairy tale and smoking is good for you. Consider this, it is predicted that within a decade there will not be not enough fresh water for the world population. Food is already in short supply in some portions of the world. The human population is the single largest factor in the depletion and destruction of our planet’s resources and the sooner we face up to it, the better.

Recently I went to a family event celebrating my Grandfather’s birthday. At dinner, to my astonishment, I noted that there were over 100 relatives in the room—his six kids—their children and their children’s children—and that was just my Mother’s side of the family. Both sides added up to over 150 people from two sets of grandparents. I love my family but I was troubled. I sat quietly thinking about all the resources, all the acres of additional land that had to be cleared, the species to be killed to accommodate my family and their needs. Do we have the right to reproduce like rabbits?

When family members asked my wife and I when we would be adding to the family tree, I dodged the question, but the truth is ‘never”. We decided some time ago that our family had long ago used up its replacement quota and we’d make a conscious effort not too add to an over-populated planet.

So what I am really saying here? Is there a real solution to the population issue. There is, and an easy one at that. If three or four generations of the world population were to stick to the replacement quota rule (2 kids or less), our world population problem would start to solve itself.


Make responsible choices. Advertisers thrive on you making as many irresponsible and impulsive choices as possible. Look in the mirror, be honest with yourself. Do you really need that huge SUV or 4,000 square foot home? Think of the resources and money you would save by living more modestly and environmentally friendly. Look at your footsteps.

Work and Play responsibly. Is it really faster to leaf blow your yard than using a rake? I can rake our yard just as fast as a “Mow and Blow” garderner can without the pollution, dust and noise and actually get some exercise and quality time in the garden. Plus, my yard waste ends up as mulch in the garden or is properly thrown in the green recycle barrel and not simply blown into the street and my adjacent neighbors’ yard.

Off-roading has become increasingly popular, whether it’s in a 4x4 truck, a snowmobile, a bike or on a motorized watertoy. What are the repercussions of this? Pollution, damaging fragile eco-systems (by crushing plants, leaking oil, distrubing areas with noise). Did you know that the wilderness that you’ve been playing in may mean the possible extinction of a species?

In the American Southwest, the trashing of the stream areas which happen to be the nesting and forage areas of the Least Bell’s Vireo and Southern Willow Flycatcher are partially responsible for their endangerment. If you must play with your off-road toys, do it in areas designated for them and stay on the trails.

Want fun and adventure without destroying wildlife? Get out of the SUV or off your bike, use your legs and hike. Do it with your cellphone turned off, your iPod and laptop left at home. Let birdsong and the rustle of leaves in the trees be your music for a couple hours. Leave your work and troubles at home and go to a place where you can’t find a trace of any man-made. Sit down, relax and wait for a half-hour. You’ll see the natural world come alive around you. And if you listen and watch closely, you’ll find the thrill of all things man-made begins pale to the beauty and wonders of the natural world.

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