By Jerry Hassinger
On the subject of birds, the futures of too many species do not look good. In a report titled The State of the World’s Birds, compiled every five years, 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, which continues a relentless and continuing deterioration in the status of the world’s birds.
“Agriculture has the biggest impact of all human activities on birds, threatening 74% of the 1,469 species at risk of extinction. Logging impacts 50 percent of the threatened species, invasive species 39 percent [including invasive pathogens like West Nile Virus], hunting 35 percent, and climate change and severe weather 33 percent [and climate change often benefits invasive species and pathogens: a one-two punch]. Other threats include development, wildfires, energy production and mining, and pollution.”
This was a look at the world; I think in the United States per se the percentages would be quite different. To take an extreme example, hunting in the U.S. helps save bird populations and does not threaten any species of which I’m aware.
On the other hand, we have the glass and the cats.
Years ago (2006) Daniel Klem, a Pennsylvania Biologist, estimated that at least 1 billion birds are killed by flying into windows every year in the U.S.
Feral and free-roaming US cats kill truckloads of birds: by some estimates up to three billion birds in one year. I’ll just add that cats kill a lot of birds and so do cars (estimate 200 million) for that matter.
Then there are all the towers dotting our landscape. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that between 6 and 50 million birds are killed each year when they collide with a tower. Wind turbines account for between 140,000 and 328,000 bird deaths each year. All these figures are somewhat crude estimates, but they add up to a lot of human-related and significant bird mortality that did not exist or at least was insignificant a century ago.
Other species pay the price for more humans on planet earth and despite the declines in human birth rates that some lament, the fact remains that we are still adding 200,000 new babies to the planet every day. The year I was born (1936) there were an estimated 2 billion humans using the planet. Today (a mere 83 years later) we’re approaching a population of 8 billion. If this dramatic population increase occurred in any other species that caused this much earthly destruction, all hell would break loose. But we pretty much keep quiet about it.
Like the canaries used to detect air quality in deep mines, all birds are bellwethers of environmental health and 40 percent (4,400 species) are declining. We should be concerned for the birds and for ourselves. At this point, I’ll insert one of my own rhymes for the times.
NO VOTE, OR CHOICE OF A FATE,
THEY NEED OUR CARE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.
ANYTHING LESS IS THROWING THE DICE,
AND OUR HUMANITY WILL PAY THE PRICE.
The rhyme does not say birds need our care, it specifies “they,” because (while birds are relatively obvious and as such are useful barometers of environmental health) many other less obvious species are also suffering declines and suffering our ignorance. Some, like pollinators, are easy to connect to the welfare of humans. Others, like pangolins, are just beautiful pinnacles of evolution quietly disappearing down the gullets of avarice in high-end restaurants.
Former New York Senator, Jim Buckley, put it this way “what good is a snail darter? As practical men measure good, probably none. But we simply don’t know. What value would we have placed on the cowpox virus before Jenner, or on the penicillin mold before Fleming, or on a wild rubber tree before Goodyear? Yet the life of every American, and of practically every citizen of the world, is different because of these species.”
Between the mainstream and social media, there is plenty of care, but perhaps too often it’s caring for the symptoms and ignoring the cause. Another rhyme for the time, a rhyme I wrote out of frustration during the 1970s.
WHEN HABITAT DIES,
BECAUSE HABITAT DOESN’T HAVE
BIG BROWN EYES.
In truth, though not sexy, many of us do care about habitat. But the nature and magnitude of current changes to habitat from outright elimination to degradation (climate change, changing cover types, pollution, invasives, extirpation or extinction of keystone species …) far outstrip any clout we might have to forestall or reverse such change. This is all the more reason to give it everything we’ve got to save our public lands and waters, and to add to them.
It’s the only reasonable and significant compensatory weapon we have at our disposal.
Educators, First Grade Teachers, College Professors, Clergy, Parents, Everyone — Get to know your public lands. They’re your heritage and they may be integral to your salvation. They certainly are to mine.
Jerry Hassinger is a former director of the PA Game Commission’s wildlife diversity program and wildlife biologist with the PA Bureau of Forestry