Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Birding at the Bridge

Heather Wolf and Laura
Heather Wolf and Laura

I’ve been visiting my daughter in New York City for a few days, which gave me an opportunity to meet the author of one of my favorite books of 2016, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront. And what better place to meet Heather Wolf but at Brooklyn Bridge Park?

So on Monday morning, I caught a subway near Katie’s apartment and headed to the stop nearest the Brooklyn Bridge, where Heather was waiting. It’s easy for birders to pick one another out even in a bustling metropolis. I was wearing my binoculars, and Heather was not just binoculared; she was also lugging her camera, with the same 100-400 millimeter lens I use. Of course, we were also meeting at 7 am, well before the crush of commuters. There were only 6 other people in my subway car, and hardly anyone walking about at street level—it was blustery and 19 degrees—making picking Heather out even easier.

Birders belong to something of a family or tribe, and we usually have instant rapport and plenty to talk about even if we've never met before. But meeting Heather was different from meeting even the most compatible birder—she is a genuine kindred spirit. We both share an abiding love for even the most common birds, love telling stories about our adventures, and love bringing birding to non-birders.

Central Park House Sparrow
I photographed this House Sparrow in Central Park in September 2012. I just threw it in for the heck of it. 
We also both enjoy pigeons, starlings and House Sparrows much more than most birders do. We realize that starlings and sparrows pose huge ecological problems in wild habitats here in America, though they don't pose most of those problems in a big city where plenty of other factors keep those other birds away. Most complaints about pigeons have to do with people, not wildlife—they provide a lot of food for urban Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks. House Sparrows were the most abundant species we saw on our walk—there were a few dozen of them, but only a handful of starlings and a couple of pigeons.

Most birds had apparently taken refuge somewhere out of the high winds, leaving us with a grand total of only 14 species, counting the two crows that refused to call out their identity. In New York so close to the coast, there's no reliable way to figure out if crows are American or Fish Crows without hearing the tell-tale caw. Like me, Heather doesn’t invest a lot of ego in identification—on our eBird checklist, we were both happy to call them “crow sp.” rather than making a guess that couldn’t be supported. Of course, we’d have been even happier if they’d called out to us. I tell people you can tell crows apart by asking, “Are you an American Crow?” Any self-respecting Fish Crow who understands English would answer “Uh uh!” but these two refused to divulge any information at all.

We didn’t see as many waterfowl as I’d hoped. Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Gadwalls were the only ducks, and the only geese we saw were three Brants flying by. Most of the gulls were Ring-bills, with Herrings here and there. Two Great Black-backed Gulls and three Double-crested Cormorants hunkered down on pilings looking rather miserable.

Fifteen or so White-throated Sparrows lurked in dense vegetation here and there. In one spot I heard what sounded like two American Tree Sparrows. I know their sweet call note well, but with my heavy winter hat covering my ears and hearing aids, I couldn’t be certain.

Heather took this mockingbird photo—I didn't travel with my camera this time. 

My favorite birds of the morning were three Northern Mockingbirds that popped out here and there. Mockingbirds usually look so elegantly slender, but these were jarringly plump, their down feathers lofted as insulation against the cold, doubling their bulk.

Just two days earlier, Heather had covered Brooklyn Bridge Park on the Christmas Bird Count. With the careful scrutiny that a bird count group gives an area, her group found 50 percent more species than we did, tallying 21. I didn’t feel at all shortchanged. Heather Wolf was every bit as wonderful as her book made me think she'd be. I’m already looking forward to visiting New York again just to spend more time with her.

Monday, December 19, 2016

BP Oil Spill Six Years Later: Oil is still showing up in bird tissues

Oil from the natural beach at Grand Isle State Park, July 29, 2010

When the Deepwater Horizon offshore oilrig exploded in April 2010, leading to the largest oil spill on American waters in recorded history, BP instantly jumped in to minimize the damage—to their shareholders. One of their strategies was to keep the numbers of oiled wildlife as low as possible. Not the oiled animals themselves—just the numbers, by working out entirely new ways of counting them.

In previous oil spills, when responsible observers observed oiled birds, mammals, and turtles, they included them in official numbers, which were as honest an assessment of the “oiled wildlife” after a spill as was humanly possible. This was the method used to assess the wildlife damage after the Exxon Valdez and in every other oil spill right up to the BP spill.

Yet in 2010, somehow, BP persuaded the US Fish and Wildlife Service to include in the official numbers only those animals that had been actually retrieved, and they made retrieving them as difficult as possible, again with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s sanction. They prohibited the retrieval of any flying birds, regardless of how badly they were oiled, and regardless of how feeble their attempts at flight might be, making the ridiculous case that the trauma of capture was more likely than the oil to kill the birds.

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron
Think this Black-crowned Night-Heron was going to survive without treatment?
Yet the US Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited rescuing it, as a "flying bird."
Audubon and other organizations supported this strategy, which not only doomed countless
birds but kept those birds literally countless, or at least uncounted in the official totals.

When I was on a boat chartered to explore the damage in Barataria Bay, we came upon a badly oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron that feebly opened its wings and jumped a couple of feet before falling into the water and shuffling to shore. Our boat captain said if he helped the bird, he’d lose his license and livelihood.

When we chartered a flight over Raccoon Island, where a large nesting colony of waders and pelicans had been devastated, we saw pelicans prostrate on the ground, wings spread. Not one was rescued or counted—even after 80 percent of the colony had been oiled, US Fish and Wildlife prohibited capture of any of the birds, ostensibly for fear of disrupting the nesting, even though they’d always permitted people to climb to nests in the past to band chicks, causing at least as much disruption to breeding birds.

There was also documented evidence that people were burning carcasses to keep those numbers down, but there was no governmental investigation of that whatsoever.

In addition to keeping numbers low to minimize the fines related to wildlife damage and the massive public relations fallout if the true number were revealed, BP also managed to impose a strict 5-year moratorium on publication of most of the research happening after the spill. Finally some of the papers are seeing light. One published last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters reveals that the oil continues to harm birds even now, six years later.

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

Researchers discovered that oil from the BP spill was already being found in the tissues of Seaside Sparrows by 2011, indicating that the spill’s impacts had worked up the terrestrial food chain as well as the aquatic one. Researchers also noticed a decline in Seaside Sparrow breeding success in 2011, after fairly steady increases in recent years. That decline has been steep and without check along Louisiana shores ever since 2011, according to Breeding Bird Survey graphs.

The lower graphs show the Louisiana population of Seaside Sparrows, based on
Breeding Bird Survey data. Notice the steep decline from 2010 to 2011. 

 I’m not sure what we can or should be doing with information about the continuing toll of an oil spill that happened 6 ½ years ago when there are so many other problems right now to solve. But somehow, attention must be paid.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bernard DeVoto's "Homily for a Troubled Time"

Bernard DeVoto, from Wikipedia

After the election last month, people I know have been talking seriously about fleeing the United States. I was in Uganda during the election, and several people brought up the possibility of just staying there, but overall, Costa Rica and New Zealand seem the most popular choices. People who have dedicated their entire lives to the protection of wildlife, natural habitat, clean air and water, or basic issues of human equality here in America are suddenly in a tragic state of fearful despair.

This made me search out an essay I'd chanced upon in a vintage copy of Woman’s Day magazine I found at a friend’s house a couple of years ago. “Homily for a Troubled Time,” written by Bernard DeVoto, was published in January 1951, another time when America was living in fear.

The entire wonderful essay, which I recommend reading in its entirety, is here, on the website of DeVoto's son, Mark. DeVoto was an impassioned conservationist and historian whose work is worth checking out, along with Wallace Stegner's 1974 The Uneasy Chair: a Biography of Bernard DeVoto.

DeVoto opens "Homily for a Troubled Time" with the Black Death, which, he noted, “has always been the greatest symbol of human helplessness and of universal fear. Until the present moment and the atom bomb.”

He writes about people who tried to escape the dangers of the Black Death or of civil unrest during the Great Depression by hiding out in refuges such as abandoned mines, and how empty their existence was, saying, “unreal fear is a greater danger than any real danger. We know this very well; but panic tugs at our minds, and the panic is worse than any horror it conjures up. For it could paralyze our thinking and our action.”

He continues:
Actually, the fear is not of tomorrow but of the day after, and that is its danger — for the fear of death can keep us from living. There is the old question: If you knew you were to die day after tomorrow, what would you do tomorrow? Only one answer has ever been sensible: Just what I would do if I did not know — go to the office, take the children to the park, go on with the job, get married, buy the house, have a baby. All other answers would be folly, and the most foolish of all would be: I would spend my last twenty-four hours at the bottom of an abandoned mine.
He continues:
To anyone calculating the odds of life, one of the epitaphs in the Greek Anthology said three thousand years ago all that wisdom can ever say:
A shipwrecked sailor on this coast
      Bids you set sail;
    Full many a ship, when ours was lost,
       Weathered the gale.

Although DeVoto did not mention chickadees, his final conclusions are pretty much that we should face any fears about the dangers we’ll face tomorrow as chickadees do. DeVoto writes,
At the base of personality, sheer animal faith in life makes us affirm life. There is always a pistol or a bottle of sleeping pills, but we vote to wake tomorrow and cultivate our garden. Indeed, the affirmation is deeper than personality, for body has a wisdom that resides in the nerves, the muscles, the very cells. They go on performing their function till death comes. Their function is the maintenance and renewal of human life. So is ours. 
What does the asking price buy? At worst it will buy, day after tomorrow, the knowledge that we have lived an additional day — and if fear has not paralyzed us, that we got from it what we could, and did what could. The knowledge that the United States went out to meet its destiny, acting positively, not refraining from action in panic. That we acted as a sound, sane, resolute people. That as a people we affirmed the life which is in us and were members of one another; and that as individuals we have lived in a decisive time and not shrunk from our part in it. That we stood for the dignity of human experience.
However life unfolds in America the day after tomorrow, the week after next, the month after that,  we Americans are as inextricably bound to one another and to our country as chickadees are within their diverse multi-species flocks in their home range. If I’ve lived my life standing up for the protection of wildlife, natural habitat, clean air and water, and basic issues of human equality, why would I run away and hide now?

Black-capped Chickadee

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sounding out Names

Winding Cisticola

When I was in Uganda, we saw a bunch of drab songbirds called cisticolas. Many of the species in this group are named specifically for the sounds they make: there is a Singing, Chattering, Whistling, Trilling, Bubbling, Rattling, Tinkling, Wailing, Churring, Chirping, Croaking, Piping, Zitting, and Wing-snapping Cisticola. I’m not sure how the Winding Cisticola got its name, because it doesn’t sound like someone is winding a clock, but thinking about all those names derived from the birds’ vocalizations made me think about other birds whose names conjure sounds.

 One of my California birding friends, Jennifer Rycenga, just posted an intriguing thought on Facebook. She wrote, “You know what's kind of weird? Trumpeter Swans sound like trumpets with their mutes in, which would really make them Muted Trumpeter Swans, except that would be too confusing, since there's a species called Mute Swan.”

Jennifer got the idea from Brian Wilson in the song “Surf’s Up” on the Beach Boys’ Smile album. One stanza goes:
The music hall; a costly bow
The music; all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter's swan
The Trumpeter and Mute Swans are the two found regularly in America that are named for their sounds, or lack of sounds. When I started birding, our third swan, what we now call the Tundra Swan, was the Whistling Swan for its calls.

Geese are known for their honking, but none of them are officially called honkers. Our Cackling Goose—the tiny species that other than size looks like a Canada Goose—is the only one whose name refers to its sound. And no ducks are called quackers or anything else that might conjure their calls except one group. The ones formerly called tree ducks are now called Whistling-Ducks.

In North America, only one bird has “laughing” in its name: the Laughing Gull. But around the world, there’s a Laughing Dove, Owl, Kookaburra, and Falcon, and a large group called laughingthrushes.

I live with an Eastern Screech-Owl who has never in the 16 years I’ve lived with him screeched.

Fully 160 birds in the world have “babbler” in their name. Catbirds mew. The Barking Owl of Australia and Papua New Guinea barks, but no birds are called dogbirds. Bellbirds make a cool ringing sound—I recorded a Bearded Bellbird in Trinidad in 2001—that was the #1000 bird on my lifelist.

Some bird names are obviously onomatopoeic for their vocalizations, such as the Killdeer, various cuckoos, the whip-poor-will, pewees, phoebes, and chickadees. The Bobolink’s name is ostensibly onomatopoeic, but I just can’t hear the supposed Bobolink, bobolink. Spink! Spank! Spink! To me, Bobolinks sound like R2D2.

Common Loons are not named for their looney tunes. Despite the maniacal laughter that people often think makes them “looney,” our name for the loon comes from an old Scandinavian word for someone who is lame, referring to the loon’s inability to walk on land. In Great Britain, loons are called divers, and some ornithologists think we should change the American name to Great Northern Diver to match the name in the U.K. Juliet was right that “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but if a group of professional botanists suddenly decided to change a rose to something else, it would certainly be confusing, as changing the name of Minnesota's state bird would. What’s in a bird’s name? It may conjure sound, or fill birders with fury, but no matter what the species, it never signifies nothing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Chickadees of Peabody Street

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Imagine a group of miners going deep deep down into a mine, and suddenly the canaries they brought with them keel over dead. Would any of them reasonably respond by saying, “Well, that’s too bad, but there are plenty more where they came from,” and keep pulling their crew deeper into the mine?

After stories emerged on Facebook about thousands of Snow Geese dying after landing in the Berkeley Pit in Montana last week, that was pretty much the exact take of some reasonably educated people. Commenters said things like “at least it wasn’t a rare species” and even “that’s a good way to bring down their numbers.”

The Snow Goose, a gorgeous species that migrates through the Lake Superior area in fairly small numbers, is far, far more abundant on a continental scale than it may seem to Northlanders. Not only is it rather rare in these parts at any time of year; it breeds nowhere in the Lower 48, nor in much of Canada. How can it be so abundant?

On the breeding grounds north of the tree line in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern tip of Siberia, Snow Geese can be incredibly dense. Their main wintering grounds are within a swath of land from Iowa and western Illinois down to Louisiana and Alabama, but a large number winter here and there. In New Mexico they’re easily photographed and enjoyed at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Their migration peaks in Nebraska along the Platte River in early March, when it’s possible to see a million in a single day.

So yes, Snow Geese are abundant, especially considering that in the 1800s they’d been over-hunted to the point that they were in serious trouble. Now, after a century of protection, some wildlife managers say that Snow Geese have become dangerously “overabundant,” and are destroying the tundra. Their information is based on aerial surveys that do show large and increasing numbers, but since there is no baseline from before their population had been decimated, their assessment is absurdly unscientific. And if real damage to the tundra is occurring, that may well be caused by effects of climate change, which is accelerating worst in the far north.

Either way, we honestly have no clue how big today’s Snow Goose population is compared to that of 200 years ago. We also don’t have a clear picture of tundra vegetation from 200 years ago, and we don’t know what factors besides Snow Geese may be affecting it.

But overpopulated or not, the thousands of dead Snow Geese are definite proof of the danger of the Berkeley Pit, a shockingly toxic superfund site in the heart of Montana, the state of Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s proposed Secretary of the Interior. Earlier this year, Zinke expressed dismay when the EPA listed another Anaconda mine site as a Superfund priority. He didn’t dispute the toxicity. His concern was that Superfund designation could make people aware of how toxic the site is, saying on his Congressional website, “That stigma remains. It draws down property values and hinders investment and future economic development.”

News reports about the unprecedented Snow Goose kill mentioned how people in the Butte area are concerned about the potential impact the national news story will have on tourism there. Believe it or not, despite this pit being a Superfund site, one of the big tourism draws in Butte, with a Chamber of Commerce website encouraging visitors, is a platform to look at the pit.  

According to an article cited in as accurate,
Dave Palmer, who takes office in January as the newly elected county chief executive and a longtime commissioner, said the die-off is not good news on the economic development front. “It does make national news and that is unfortunate because that is what people look at — bad things," Palmer said. "We could be doing a thousand good things in Montana and Butte itself and you never hear about them rise to the national level."  
Now many locals are saying the pit should be “drained,” though where exactly they want all that toxic water to go isn’t clear, especially in an area that is already plagued with contaminated ground water from other Superfund sites.

Most of the news stories back when it happened through December 7 set the Snow Goose kill at “thousands” or “close to 10,000,” but final numbers haven’t been released yet. With so many other scary stories dominating the news right now, few people are even thinking about this story anymore. The Butte Chamber of Commerce and all kinds of corporate interests have a vested interest in suppressing coverage, so we may never find out what that final tally is. Yet here we are, continuing down that path even as dead canaries accumulate. There are plenty more where they came from, right?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Berkeley Pit Goose Die-off

Snow Goose

Human mythology, folklore, and fairy tales are full of stories about someone doing a seemingly innocent thing that ends up releasing chaos and death. A common element in these stories, from Pandora’s box to Humpty Dumpty, is that once it happens, it can never be fixed. The mess created when the little children opened the door to Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat was so deep and so big and so tall that there was no way to fix it, no way at all. Unlike other crafters of these stories, Dr. Seuss didn’t want to end his story with the children in such a terrible situation, so the Cat ended up coming back and magically cleaning up his own mess. But magic is hard to come by in the real world.

In 1864, mining of sulfide minerals began near what is now Butte, Montana. The mine was called the Berkeley Mine, extracting minerals of a prominent vein in the huge Anaconda vein system. By 1867, rich deposits of silver were exposed in the Berkeley mine, and in 1888 copper was discovered—that became the main product the mine unearthed year after year, decade after decade; lead, zinc, manganese, silver and gold have also been extracted at various times.

In 1955, two years before publication of The Cat in the Hat, Anaconda Copper, and eventually the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), started extracting the minerals more directly, digging an open pit near the Berkeley Mine shaft. By then, open-pit mining was superseding underground operations. In the 50s, people were like those Dr. Seuss children, or Pandora, not quite knowing how dangerous open-pit mining was. They did know that it was far more economical and much less dangerous for the miners than underground mining, so they went full-speed ahead.

The pit grew to be one mile long by half a mile wide with an approximate depth of 1,780 feet—a third of a mile deep, deeper than Lake Superior at its maximum depth.

Within the first year of operation, the pit was extracting about 17,000 tons of ore per day at a grade of 0.75% copper—about 1,000,000,000 tons of material were mined from the Berkeley Pit during the time it was operational. Copper was the principal metal produced, although silver, gold, and other metals were also extracted. Two communities and much of Butte's previously crowded east side were consumed by land purchases to expand the pit.

As people grew more and more aware of the environmental costs of open pit mines, more and more pressure was put on Anaconda Copper and ARCO to close the Berkeley Pit, which they finally did, to great fanfare, on Earth Day 1982. But that hardly ended the problems. When the pit was closed, the water pumps in the nearby Kelley Mine, 3,800 feet below the surface, were turned off. Now groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the Berkeley Pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month. Since the pit closure in 1982, the level has risen to within 150 feet of the natural groundwater level. That water is heavily acidic—the pH is 2.5, about the same as cola or lemon juice.

That acidic water leaches heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals, including copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid, from the rock, making the water exceptionally toxic. In 1995, a flock of migrating Snow Geese landed in the Berkeley Pit water and died. A total of 342 carcasses were recovered. ARCO denied that the toxic water caused the death of the geese, attributing the deaths to an acute aspergillosis infection. These findings were disputed by the State of Montana on the basis of its own lab tests. Necropsies showed the geese’s internal organs were lined with burns and festering sores from exposure to high concentrations of copper, cadmium, and arsenic.

Now, just last week, on November 28, thousands of Snow Geese died in a similar event, when a bad snowstorm drove them to seek refuge in what looked like a lake. People tried desperately to scare them away, but flock after flock dropped into the water and died. We don’t know what the final death toll is, but one news account set it as 10,000 Snow Geese. Ten THOUSAND.

The EPA has been struggling with lots of Pandora’s boxes in the form of Superfund sites, each one a unique scourge. The corporations that were responsible for unleashing all the toxicity on us continue to obfuscate the problems, as ARCO did the first time there was a goose die-off in 1995. That’s why it’s so critical to prevent corporate influence over government agencies.

Cleaning up just the Berkeley Pit, or simply keeping wildlife out of it, is impossible on any human time scale. Pandora’s box is open, and no Cat in the Hat is going to magically clean up the mess. Our only hope—our only defense against this literal chaos and death—is a well-funded EPA whose only mandate is to live up to its name, Environmental Protection, and whose only influence on what needs to be done and how to do it is science. Thousands of dead geese in 2016 from a mine that was closed in 1982 should be more than enough warning.

Monday, December 5, 2016

House Sparrows

House Sparrow at Bar Harbor
When I was in Bar Harbor, ME, in the presence of all kinds of cool birds,
 I couldn't help but photograph this little guy!

When I was a small child, long before The Waltons was on television, I used to pretend that I belonged to a happy little family that lived in my neighborhood. Every evening at bedtime, as it grew dark outside, I’d listen to them sharing their stories about their day’s adventures and saying good night to each other. I couldn’t make out their exact words, and they often talked over each other, but I could discern how friendly they were and how jolly their stories were.

My little family was a flock of House Sparrows that roosted in the hedges around our two-flat apartment in Chicago. If I knelt backward on the sofa, I could look out the front room window and see the top of the dense row of bushes. When a sparrow flew in, the bush actually seemed to swallow it whole—one moment the bird was flying fast directly toward the hedge, and a split second later it had completely disappeared, no rustling or shaking of branches or anything. It seemed like genuine magic, which perhaps is why I thought this magical family was half human, half avian, and a hundred percent fairy sprites.

We moved to a working class suburb, Northlake, when I was four. Northlake was all lawns and small Cape Cod houses—no grimy alleys and postage stamp lawns and two-flats and warehouses anywhere I could see. The one factory in town, Automatic Electric, was gigantic, but surrounded by acres of grounds, with manicured lawns and huge trees, and Addison Creek (highly polluted, but we little kids didn't know that!) flowed through it. That factory employed much of Northlake’s population, and was the whole reason our little suburb was built in the first place. And Northlake was noisy, because we were under a flight pattern for O’Hare Airport. But my dad called Northlake “the country,” and it looked like an entirely different world from “the city.”

We had a juniper hedge against our house that the abundant House Sparrows roosted in, so from the day we moved in, I felt a warm sense of familiarity and homeyness. Now at bedtime their little voices seemed to be directly welcoming me into their happy family.

One of the first McDonalds restaurants opened in our neighborhood in the 60s, and I loved going there to feed the House Sparrows. I loved how they looked up at me hopefully, and so enjoyed French fries. One female would come within millimeters of my fingers repeatedly. She wasn’t trusting of me enough to actually alight on my hand, like Briar Rose’s woodland friends in Sleeping Beauty, but that felt pretty close.

Central Park Zoo House Sparrow
House Sparrows eat fries wherever they find them, including at New York's Central Park Zoo.
House Sparrow cheepings provided an essential and beloved, ever pervasive element in the soundtrack of my childhood. When I started birding in 1975, after I saw my first chickadee on March 2, all it took was a visit to the East Lansing McDonalds to see the Number 4 species on my lifelist.

That summer, when I took my first field ornithology class, I was overwhelmed by the ornithological treasures I’d never even imagined were all around me—Great Blue Herons, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Purple Martins, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I wrote my final paper in that class, the first scientific paper I ever wrote, comparing the foraging behavior of House Sparrows in two different habitats: the outside picnic table area at a McDonalds restaurant and the area surrounding a picnic table in a back yard. I got an A, but my professor expressed surprise and even some disappointment that of all the birds we’d seen in the course, I chose to write about House Sparrows. But how could this blue collar girl not? I was plagued with a vague fear of abandoning my working class roots and becoming snooty if I abandoned my treasured little sparrows.

House Sparrow
In a country with Cuban Todies and myriad other amazing birds,
House Sparrows still drew my camera's focus.

We learned in that class that House Sparrows had been introduced here in America, in multiple introductions for many reasons, including that they were mentioned in the Bible and that people hoped they’d help clean up the horse manure on city streets before Henry Ford came up with a "better idea." I don’t think we learned about the ecological problems they posed, specifically for native cavity-nesting birds because the House Sparrows so aggressively appropriated their nest holes, until I took another ornithology course the next year.

Over time, as I talked to people trying to help Purple Martins and three species of bluebirds, all in dire trouble, I realized House Sparrows really are a horrible problem. But as much as I tried to assume an air of scientific detachment, I couldn’t stifle my warm feelings toward them, at least within the urban environments where bluebirds and Purple Martins are in short supply for a whole variety of reasons that don’t involve House Sparrows. But expressing those warm feelings near anyone involved with protecting native species could just not be done.

Last week I was texting with one of our good family friends about House Sparrows. Scott Melamed, a city kid like me, has grown fascinated with House Sparrows. He wrote:
I really loved seeing them around, in the grass or by homes or wherever. They seemed like a sign of health - that there was this abundance of birds just woven into the city neighborhoods. And it was only in reading about them that I learned about their wild history of invasiveness! ... But they certainly have endured.
I grew up in Plymouth, a suburb of Minneapolis, with lots of birds. I saw far fewer in NYC and DC, but it felt like there was better air when I'd be be out on a walk and see all these sparrows come up from the ground as they do… I still like them, and it's nice to hear you do, too. 
Scott’s views are actually mirrored at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where a wonderful program called Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBs) is designed to help people living in even the most urban areas to notice and enjoy the birds around them, everywhere from green parks to city sidewalks and apartment balconies and fire escapes.

Unfortunately, by the time CUBs was launching around the time I worked at Cornell, House Sparrows were in trouble. Their numbers have been declining for decades in the U.K. and Europe.

When I went to Europe in 2014, I hardly saw any, though Eurasian Tree Sparrows were quite easy to find, and I saw very few in Uganda last month. American ornithologists aren’t quite prepared to say any decline in House Sparrows poses a problem, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but even here their numbers have dropped precipitously according to Breeding Bird Survey data.

These lowly little sparrows evolved with the earliest humans and have been part and parcel of our civilized world from the very start. Right now we are growing so polarized and fragmented that some of the very underpinnings of civilization, including the scientific method and the very nature of facts and truth, are unraveling before our eyes. It’s obviously a coincidence, yet unsettlingly ironic, that this companionable little bird, the species most associated with human civilization throughout our long history, would be disappearing right now. It’s almost as if they're abandoning ship.

House Sparrow

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Uganda's National Bird: the Crested Crane

Gray Crowned-Crane

National symbols are a curious thing. Ever since 1782, when Congress approved a design of the national emblem with a prominent "American Bald Eagle," we’ve considered the Bald Eagle our national bird. Actually, the United States doesn’t even have an official national bird, but the eagle is so prominent on our national emblem that it pretty much serves that role.

Our neighbor to the north has a Common Loon prominently displayed on its one-dollar coin, which is nicknamed the loonie. Canadians have recently been debating what to name their official national bird. Many people assumed the loon would automatically be named, and it was the first choice when Canadians were asked to vote on their favorite by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. But the Common Loon is already the provincial bird for Ontario, and the second-place vote-getter, the Snowy Owl, is Quebec’s provincial bird.

Gray Jay

The third choice, the Gray Jay, which was formerly officially named the Canada Jay, was the recommended choice of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. One of my favorite ornithologists, David Bird of McGill University, advocated for that excellent choice in a wonderful essay.

Gray Crowned-Crane

When I was in Uganda this month, I was taken with the pride everyone there takes in their official national bird, the Crested Crane (called by ornithologists the Gray Crowned-Crane). It’s one of those improbably gorgeous birds that doesn’t look quite real, thanks to its crown of fine but stiff, golden feathers. And when I say golden, I mean that in the sparkling metallic sense of the word—these dazzling feathers glow and sparkle, both in flat light or full sun.

Gray Crowned-Crane

That unique crown is even more striking in the context of the bird’s face. The clean black forehead feathers form a poofy powder puff. Those and shorter black throat feathers, along with the black bill, set off the large patch of bare, pristine white skin of the cheeks and a brilliant patch of bare, blood-red skin on the upper face. An inflatable throat pouch dangles like a small choker or a huge, opulent ruby necklace such as Elizabeth Taylor would wear, depending on the bird’s mood.

Gray Crowned-Crane

All this stunning color is set off to perfection by elegant gray neck and body feathers, and balanced at the bird’s other end with white wing feathers and soft golden feathers forming a bustle. When the bird opens its wings, it reveals a bold black, white, rich chestnut, and golden wing pattern that took my breath away, especially when I watched a small group dancing away, engaged in what was probably an early breeding season competition for mates, on our wildlife drive through Murchison Falls National Park. We saw elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, hartebeests, Uganda kob, and other spectacular wildlife on that same drive, but somehow the vision of those dancing cranes is what keeps popping into my mind’s eye a week and a half later.

Gray Crowned-Crane

The Gray Crowned-Crane ranges from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya to southeastern South Africa. There are two subspecies. The “nominate” subspecies, called the South African crowned crane, breeds from Angola south to South Africa. The East African subspecies, the crested crane, is the one so beloved in Uganda. That crested crane manages to be even more gorgeous than its southern brethren, the red skin patch above the white cheek larger and bolder.

This species and the much darker Black Crowned-Crane of Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the upper Nile River basin in Sudan and Ethiopia are considered the oldest of the crane family, dating to fossils of the Eocene period. Fossils of eleven species of crowned cranes have been identified in Europe and North America, but apparently all but those in warmer Africa died out as the earth cooled at the end of the Eocene. Unlike most crane species, crowned cranes are non-migratory, wandering here and there as wet and dry spells dictate, but not as regular seasonal movements to warmer or cooler areas.

Uganda’s choice of the Crested Crane as its national bird is perfect. On various Ugandan websites, the bird is aptly described as beautiful, majestic, magnificent, elegant, friendly, gentle, and peace-loving. The crane features on the national emblem, as our Bald Eagle does, but Uganda is unique in the entire world for having a bird on its flag, too. With such a perfect national bird, how could they not?

Both species of crowned cranes are declining. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Black Crowned-Crane as Threatened, and the Gray Crowned-Crane as Endangered. After spending time in Uganda and seeing first hand how tirelessly people are working for wildlife conservation, I think the species is in excellent hands.

Gray Crowned-Crane