Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The bird massacres

Earlier this month, the sudden deaths of thousands of birds, mostly members of the blackbird family, in places as farflung as Arkansas and Sweden, caused consternation among many people. As usual in such instances of mysterious occurrences, the conspiracy theorists and apocalypticists were soon spreading their interpretations of the events, and the tabloids and their equivalents in the broadcast world were lapping it all up and regurgitating it to the waiting and gullible public. Then the news cycle spun again and the tabs and their ilk moved on to tragic human deaths and outrageous human scandals.

But what about all those bird deaths? Were they really unusual? Was there something that linked the worldwide occurrences? And were they related to the other strange occurrences such as mass die-offs of fish and crabs? The New York Times has now shed the light of sober consideration and reflection on the bird deaths and their causes and have come to the conclusion that Conspiracies Don't Kill Birds. People, However, Do.

Their reporter spoke to Melanie Driscoll from the National Audubon Society. She is a biologist and is NAS director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. She put the deaths into perspective.

First of all, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that a minimum of 10 billion birds breed in the United States each year. There may be as many as 20 billion in the country during the fall migratory season. The FWS further estimates that 13.7 million birds die in the country every day.

What are the causes of all these deaths? Well, most of them are natural - the results of wild predators and natural accidents. But it must be admitted that many are the result of humans and human activity.

Human pets are a prime culprit in bird deaths. Domestic and feral cats, for example, kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, according to the best estimates.

Pesticides kill at least 72 million birds each year directly, but it is unknown and probably unknowable how many are killed indirectly. Orphaned chicks are just one example.

Flying into manmade structures accounts for more than a billion bird deaths each year. Strikes against windows alone may cause as many as 976 million deaths. Cars kill another 60 million or more. The FWS estimates the high-tension transmission and power distribution lines kill as many as 174 million birds a year. Raptors are especially susceptible to flying into these lines.

The biggie, though, the most deadly and vicious destroyer of bird life in America is the loss of habitat to development. There's really no way of counting how many birds are lost directly and indirectly each year to the seemingly unstoppable tide of encroachment by humans upon the wild places where birds live.

If all of these birds dropped dead out of the skies onto our sidewalks and backyards today, it would be the leading news story of the day. People would be alarmed and outraged and would demand that something be done to stop the deaths. But the deaths come insidiously, without fanfare and people, by and large, are oblivious. The deaths come, however, largely because of human-induced changes to our habitats, our landscape and our climate. Controlling, ameliorating, and reversing the losses is within our means.

The real story, then, of birds falling from the sky is not nearly as sexy as a government conspiracy or a sign of the "End Times" but it is a sign to us, nevertheless. You know, that canary in the gold mine thing? Maybe it's time we paid attention.

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