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What a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Can Tell Us About Our Stewardship of the Planet

October 07, 2014

Audobon_passenger_pigeonOn my morning walk the other day, I happened on a small bird in obvious distress lying on the sidewalk. Apparently, it had flown into a building and injured itself – or that's what staff at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education said when I called them to see what I could do to help the poor thing. Rick Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the center, said the bird was probably migrating south, since it didn't sound, from my description, like a bird that was native to the area. Schubert went on to say that migrating species of birds established their migratory routes long before cities were a feature of the landscape and that they are not particularly good at navigating around tall buildings.

Soon enough, the bird died, and I was overcome by grief – not just for the little voyager that never made it to its destination, but for the precarious state of all our birds. As I learned from the Audubon Society's Audubon Birds and Climate Report, which was issued last month, half of all North American birds are severely threatened by climate change.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the phenomenon can be seen near my home in Philadelphia. The rufa red knot, a bird smaller than a robin, migrates more than nine thousand miles every spring from the tip of Patagonia to the Canadian arctic, and makes the return journey every fall. The birds time their three-month trip north to arrive at the southern Jersey shore for the horseshoe crab spawning season; the abundance of food enables them to double their weight in preparation for the remainder of the journey north. Sadly, horseshoe crabs were overfished for bait in the 1990s, and that has resulted in a 70 percent drop in the rufa red knot population. Better crab harvest management since then has stabilized the declining bird population, but according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the red knot is "particularly vulnerable to climate change."

The Audubon report includes the red knot on a list of seriously threatened birds and predicts that as much as half of its habitat could be lost by 2050. A documentary film about the bird, available online, is part of the PBS "Nature" series. Crash: A Tale of Two Species describes efforts by conservation groups to track and protect the red knot – the film begins on a beach in Chile with a program to band individual birds before they head north – and notes that the crabs the red knot relies on are themselves a vital source for drugs, vaccines, and burn treatments.

The efforts already have yielded some positive results. Earlier this year, the Facebook page of Friends of the Red Knot -- "A kid driven initiative to get the red knot rufa protected from extinction!" -- featured some good news: "He's Back!! Here's the news we've been waiting for!! B95 was found this morning at Reeds Beach, NJ!" B95 was tagged in Chile and is believed to be more than twenty years old.

Still, humans have been getting in the way of the birds for a long time.

From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction is a documentary film marking the hundredth anniversary of the death in captivity of the last passenger pigeon – the first documented human-caused extinction of a species on earth. The passenger pigeon population in the U.S. was about five billion in 1800, but decades of over-hunting and habitat loss resulted in the species' demise. The one-hour film is being aired on public TV stations around the country this fall and also is available on the Web.

From Billions to None is part of Project Passenger Pigeon, an international effort initiated by the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to craft a teachable moment around the centennial anniversary of the species' extinction – and to advocate for legislation to promote biodiversity and prevent other human-caused extinctions of fauna. The project is supported by various institutional partners, and the film was financed in part by the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the T. Rowe Price Charitable Giving Foundation, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

Kay_pyle_grosbeakBack in Philadelphia, as I was holding the now-deceased bird in my hands and thinking about how we've so fundamentally altered the ecology of an entire species, a passing bike messenger pulled over to see what was going on. We chatted and traded ideas about what we should do with the little thing. He helped me take some pictures, including one showing the distinctive bright yellow on the underside of its wings, to send to the wildlife center, which was interested in identifying it. When I got home, I consulted my 1966 edition of Birds of North America and determined the bird was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus lodovicianus), which is "Common in northern deciduous woods, suburbs and old orchards." With a couple of pages from the Arts section of the New York Times as a shroud, that little female Rose-breasted Grosbeak now rests beneath a fern in the back corner of my garden, the spot marked by a tile from Mexico, perhaps her intended destination.

There's nothing we can do at this point about tall buildings in our cities, but my encounter with such vulnerable loveliness inspired me to do my small part to help migrating birds by installing a bird feeder in the garden. According to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the grosbeak's favorite foods are sunflower seed, peanut hearts, and cracked corn. I will be stocking up on all three in the weeks to come.

Documentary filmmaker Kathryn Smith Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the sixtieth anniversary of the Flaherty Film Seminar.

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Posted by mcrobot  |   October 12, 2014 at 08:07 PM

Heartbreaking and eyeopening. Thank you for this.

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