Clellie Lynch: 'Bare ruined choirs where sweet birds sang'
"Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song." — Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring," 1962
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.— Back in the 1950s, the marine biologist, Rachel Carson, examining the ever-changing natural world, observed the many complex interactions on land and in the sea — some good, some not — and concluded that the human race would be its own undoing. Her books, among them, "Silent Spring" and "The Sea Around Us," described these dire observations and soon her colleagues came to agree with her. Ultimately, her research led to the banning of DDT in 1972, a boon to the hawks, falcons and eagles at the top of the food chain.
Fast forward to a month ago when newspapers, TV, radio and the internet were awash with the story of the disappearance of 30 billion birds in the last 50 years, nearly 30 percent of avian individuals in the continental U.S. If this trend continues, we could be utterly birdless in just another 100 years. How could we live in a world without birds, without the beauty of birds, without the thrill of birdsong I've heard since my childhood?
I remember when I was around 11 riding in the big old station wagon with my father (maybe even mother too, and two or three sibs, some grumbling, some not) and seeing flocks of meadowlarks, exaltations, in the fields on the eastern end of Long Island, New York. Occasionally we'd even see a few upland plovers, a bird I have not seen in decades. The flats in spring and fall were a constantly moving mass of shorebirds twitching, flitting, pecking, preening. At night, we listened to whip-poor-wills, by day, bobwhite.
Later in the '80s, spring birding in New York City — Central Park or Jamaica Bay — led birders to coin the phrases: "trees dripping with warblers" and ponds described as "duck soup."
Two major studies, one by Audubon scientists, the other by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI), using different methods and different databases, studied bird populations during winter and spring, both examining data from about 1966 through 2016. Both studies concluded that nearly a third of our bird species declined drastically in population in that period and many individual species are flying, if not plummeting, towards extinction.
Ornithologists now have computers, radar, radio tracking and the enormous help of birdwatchers, amateur ornithologists who love to bird, count, list and report to eBird. The Audubon study, using the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data, started with 551 continental U.S. species and then excluded feeder birds. They discovered that of the remaining 228 birds, 2/3 were faring well, while 1/3 were not. Of the 1/3, the species most affected were grassland, forest and some coastal birds.
While the Audubon concentrated on CBC statistics, the NABCI study looked at 1,154 native species of North America with more than half, native species of Mexico and Central America. They analyzed information provided by eBird data, breeding bird surveys (BBS), and the CBC to review population size, size of breeding and non-breeding ranges and severity of threats.
Like the Audubon study, this study also found that species of forests, grassland and coastal areas were the most vulnerable. NABCI created a watch list assigning each species with a number from 1-20 describing the relative gravity of endangerment.
In the NABCI Watch List, any species with a 13 or above is in trouble. Many shorebirds are dwindling in population: oystercatchers, some plover and sandpipers, curlews and godwits. Even the lesser yellowlegs is assigned a 13. A surprise to me is the threat to all three scoters and all three eiders. Not surprising is the disappearance of rails, marsh birds so secretive that it is difficult to get good counts.
Moving into the woodlands, woodcock are not as prevalent as they used to be. Black duck are on the decline. And the populations of many warbler species are decreasing: Bachman's, Canada, Cape May, cerulean, Connecticut, golden-winged, Kentucky, Kirkland's, prairie, prothonotary. We do observe some of these species every spring, but rarely is a single "tree dripping with warblers." Vireos on the other hand are thriving, but no one knows why yet.
Wood thrushes are joining the rank of the Bicknell's, getting rarer and rarer each year, though we did have a few singing this spring, their ee-oh-lays, especially lovely in the evening. Large flocks of evening grosbeak often 500 or more were recorded on the Central Berkshire Count in the '70s, but grosbeak sightings have precipitously declined to almost none over the last 10 years.
Grassland birds especially those that winter in the Chihuahua grasslands in Mexico, like the chestnut-collared longspur and Sprague's pipit, are facing loss of habitat on both ends. Surprisingly bobolinks are a 14 on the list. We see many not only at Ooms Pond, but in many fields around this area. Meadowlarks, on the other hand, come in at 11, not threatened, even though I see them only very occasionally and note that they have all but disappeared from recent Central Berkshire Counts.
The villains include pollution, use of pesticides, outdoor cats, habitat loss, collection for the exotic pet trade, unsustainable logging and agriculture, land development and night migratory collisions with windows, buildings, towers and wind turbines. Studies continue concentrating on determining what is causing the most damage to a species and then coming up with viable conservation methods.
We know conservation efforts work. Some species are still threatened, but are holding on because of programs aimed specifically at their species: whooping cranes, California condors. Roseate terns are also making a comeback thanks to the efforts of the folks on Great Gull Island.
Even as early as 1916 when the Migratory Bird Treaty banned hunting for market and placed most birds under protection, rising changes to populations were quickly observed. How then can Trump just blithely decide to roll back these protections? How can he eviscerate this conservation law by absolving companies of the responsibilities of millions of incidental bird deaths?
Where we thrill to the beauty of green leaves rustling in the breeze, does Trump only envision the green fluttering of thousands of dollars, sadly leaving us with "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang?"
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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