Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birds in the News Redux: Mass Extinctions

Bachman's Warbler, now extinct, was first collected for
science by Reverend John Bachman in 1833, who gave his
descriptions and specimens to Audubon, who never saw one. 
One of the fun things about archiving old programs is reading a news story from July 11, 2017, thinking it sounds vaguely familiar, and finding an old program from 2004 that breaks essentially the same news story, scooping this month’s news fully 13 years ago. The problem is that people today will pay no more attention to it than they did in 2004, as the situation continues to get worse.

Back in 2004, I did a “Birds in the News” segment about a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in The Scientist saying that more than 15,000 species around the world were at risk of extinction.

“We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction wave on the planet Earth, caused by the intervention of humans,” David Brackett, Species Survival Commission Chair of the study, told The Scientist. “Species should come and go on an evolutionary time scale, not on our time scale.” Bracket said, “Objective information is showing that declines are not limited to vulnerable species, but are happening across the entire taxonomic spectrum.” The report noted one major notable shift—that continental extinctions had become as common as extinctions on islands, which are normally thought of as more ecologically fragile. The report concluded that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the “natural” evolutionary rate.

That was back in 2004. Monday, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, called the current decline in animal populations a “global epidemic” and part of the “ongoing sixth mass extinction” caused in large measure by human destruction of animal habitats. The previous five extinctions were caused by natural phenomena.

This week’s study didn’t focus on extinctions, but rather at how populations are doing: some are disappearing entirely and others are declining. Disappearances and declines are occurring globally, but tropical regions, with the greatest biodiversity, are experiencing the greatest loss in numbers, and temperate regions are seeing higher proportions of population loss.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford and Dr. Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City told the New York Times that “There is only one overall solution, and that is to reduce the scale of the human enterprise. Population growth and increasing consumption among the rich is driving it.”  They said that “habitat destruction — deforestation for agriculture, for example — and pollution were the primary culprits, but that climate change exacerbates both problems. Accelerating deforestation and rising carbon pollution are likely to make climate change worse, which could have disastrous consequences for the ability of many species to survive on earth.”

Dr. Ceballos noted that “some species have been able to rebound when some of these pressures are taken away,” but Dr. Ehrlich said, “We’re toxifying the entire planet.”

Back in 2004 when the signs were already clear that this sixth great extinction wave was starting, Sam Gon, director of science at The Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii division, told The Scientist, “You don’t have to know everything to take action.”

When Russ and I bought our house, it had very old knob and tube wiring, which hadn’t been up to code in years. It was expensive to rewire our whole house, but it was important to do as quickly as possible. We humans were given both a big brain to anticipate risks and the capacity to take action when we see a clear and present danger, whether it’s a potential house fire or the extinction of whole species.

Thirteen years after a very clear warning, isn’t it time we got crackin’?

Bachman's Warbler, painted by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1907.