Conservation

Bird Food Source Alert: Declining Insects

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

In recent years, we've seen well-documented declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and other insects that attract a lot of attention. But we haven't really noticed the moths, beetles, and other insects that flitter and crawl through our everyday life. Birds, however, probably notice their decline a lot, since they're a major food source. 

A recent story in the journal Science documents a new set of data gathered mostly by amateur entomologists in western Europe. These folks have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves since the 1980s, and the news is not good.

This group of amateurs, named the Krefeld Entomological Society (after their location in Germany) has seen the insect catches in their traps fluctuate every year. This is normal. But in 2013, they noticed that one of their longest-running sites showed a decline by mass of almost 80%. The numbers were just as low in 2014. In fact, the group found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites, even in reserves where plant diversity and abundance had improved. 

The group has installed more traps each year since 2013. They've also begun working with university-based researchers to look for correlations with weather, changes in vegetation, and other factors. Unfortunately, no simple cause for the decline has yet emerged.

If you don't like bugs, you're probably asking, "Why does this research matter?" The answer is that other creatures eat insects—such as birds. Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, explains, "If you're an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century." No matter what your opinion of bugs, this is important news.

No one knows what this research in western Europe means for insects elsewhere. But we at Talkin' Birds think that anything that affects the food chain for birds anywhere is worth investigating for the good of us all. 

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

Understanding the Endangered Species Act

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds seek to keep our listeners informed about developments in the world of birds and birding, so we've written this simple explanation of the Endangered Species Act and what makes it controversial. Why now? Because lawmakers in Washington, DC are going over it very carefully these days in order to decide what, if anything, should be changed about it. We ought to warn you: If you Google "Endangered Species Act of 1973," the top two results are strongly opinionated–in opposite ways. There's a lot of argument right now. Here, we hope, is a balanced picture. 

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, was signed into law in December 1973 by President Richard Nixon. Scientists had recognized for about a century that human activity was causing the extinction of fish, animals, and birds. While a few laws had been enacted to prevent over-hunting individual species (for instance, the American Bison), this law was the most comprehensive in that it intended to prevent and reverse extinction of all domestic endangered species, including maintaining and restoring their habitat. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 set the stage for the ESA by establishing a list of species in need of help. In 1969, the Act was emended to include species in danger of worldwide extinction. The ESA was and is more comprehensive in scope than both previous Acts. 

We bird-lovers have probably heard how the Bald Eagle, the Whooping Crane, and the Peregrine Falcon, among others, have returned from the brink of extinction because of programs supported by the ESA. Millions of acres of habitat have been preserved; eggs have been incubated; chicks have grown up to reproduce successfully. Aside from birds, species from wolves to whales have been rescued so that each may continue to benefit its own ecosystem, not to mention the other species with which it interacts. (Every species that's saved is important to several others.) We have heard much about the good the ESA does.

But as successful as the ESA sounds, it is not without controversy. Some critics argue that, of the over 2000 species listed since 1973, fewer than 2% have recovered enough to come off the list. These critics feel that these numbers are proof that the ESA isn't helpful. Further, the ESA does not address the exotic pet trade within states. This means that, even though endangered species can't be sold internationally or even across state lines, they can be "donated" between states and even sold in the same state—which they feel means that those species really aren't being protected. But the most vocal critics of the ESA say that protecting habitat from human activity is, well, restrictive to humans. When it comes down to it, they argue, is the survival of a rare animal really more important than the use of its habitat to benefit human beings? Is, say, preserving a rare fish more valuable than providing drinking water for a community's children? This is a tough ethical question, and lawmakers have wrestled with it for decades. The mining and timber industries are hit particularly hard by ESA-based restrictions. In 1978, the ESA was emended to allow for species exemptions; these keep lawmakers arguing for months in states where a rare species risks being wiped out by industry. 

This simplified explanation of the Endangered Species Act is only a start. If you'd like to learn more, we hope you'll check out these resources. We've tried to choose impartial ones, but, as we warned above, that's difficult. If you find any others you like, please let us know. As stewards of this planet and its inhabitants, let's keep one another in the loop. 

-The EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency's) summary

-The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's

-Wikipedia's entry on the Endangered Species Act of 1973

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does the EPA Do, Anyway?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds like to keep our listeners in the know about anything affecting birds. We've been hearing a lot in the news lately about Scott Pruitt, President Trump's nominee to head the EPA. However, we're not hearing much about the EPA itself, so we thought we'd explain what the EPA does. 

EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. (By the way, they don't use "the," so we'll stop too.) Their mission is to protect our health and environment, which they do in more areas of life than we had imagined. No fooling: If you check the A-Z index on their website, you'll see documents on everything from acid rain to the pesticide Worker Protection Standard. EPA researches, regulates, funds grants for, and provides information about pretty much anything having to do with the environment and human health in this country.

Environmental research: EPA has research stations throughout the United States. The scientists who work at them share findings with academic institutions, private sector agencies, and research agencies here and in other countries. 

Regulation: When the United States Congress writes environmental laws, EPA writes regulations to enforce them. EPA then helps businesses and other organizations understand and comply with these regulations so they can obey the law.

Grants: EPA uses about half their funding to make grants to nonprofits, state programs, and educational institutions. These grants go to research and environmental cleanups, among other uses. 

In case you're wondering EPA has done for birds, the answer is, "A lot." We bird-lovers are probably all familiar with such bird conservation initiatives as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, established by EPA in 1986 and the Partners in Flight initiative to increase bird habitats in North and South America. EPA regulates use of pesticides; it was they who banned DDT in 1972 because of the harm it does to humans, wildlife, and especially birds. (In fact, EPA maintains a handy pesticide chemical database ) Then there's their data on birds and climate change: for starters, have a look at this page to see how bird wintering ranges have changed over the last fifty years. This short list above just scratches the surface how EPA benefits birds. If you'd like to see more, go to their website and search on "birds." You'll get 3,860 results. Again, no fooling. 

So why is it important to think carefully about who is in charge of EPA? Because that person controls research, regulation, and information about so much that affects the life of all Americans--not just the human ones. 

The World's Longest Fences

On our latest show, Ray spoke with Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute about the harm that cats can do to bird populations. Yes, it's sad to say, but those sweet, furry critters kill billions of birds a year in the United States alone. With this sobering statistic on our minds, we were glad to read a recent news item: a five-mile cat fence has been built on Hawaii's Big Island around the Mauna Loa volcano. Whereas individual homeowners can choose to erect fencing to contain their felines, the National Park Service decided to build a single huge one to help protect the endangered Hawaiian Petrel. 

Only about 75 breeding pairs of the Hawaiian Petrel live in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, and cats are a serious threat to them. (Many more petrels live outside the park, but the species is still considered endangered.) Cats are not native to the Hawaiian islands, but they have taken nicely to the environment--including learning to scrabble up the sides of volcanoes to hunt vulnerable native species. The Hawaiian Islands are home to several conservation fences, of which the one on Mauna Loa is the longest. The new fence, which took four years to construct, encircles upper Moana Loa, enabling the petrels to rear their young in relative peace. It's six feet tall, with a curved top designed to be impossible for cats to climb. You can read all about the fence's construction here

Pest-proof fencing was pioneered in New Zealand and Australia, where invasive species are a recent enough phenomenon that it is often possible to tell which invader wiped out what native species. While the Mauna Loa cat fence is the longest in the United States, the longest fence of any kind in the world is the Dingo Fence in Australia, which is 3,488 miles long and protects sheep from dingo attacks.