For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Tragedies: More Bad News

Original Air Date: Aug. 3, 2004

More serious climate change problems.

Audio missing


More disturbing bird news

Yesterday, I talked about the shocking and unprecedented crash in breeding in seabirds in the North Atlantic Sea. Information about the nest failures was posted on the internet’s National bird chat, and several people have posted other alarming news of the same sort.

Alvin Laasanen writes, “I just returned from a two week pelagic trip in the Bering Sea and throughout the entire region a complete breeding failure of murres seems to have occurred. We saw tens of thousands of Common and Thick-billed Murres sitting on their nesting cliffs but saw no chicks or eggs or other signs of breeding. There were a few downy gull chicks around but that was it. With puffins and cavity nesters it was difficult to assess the breeding situation. No one seemed to have an explanation other than lack of food. Long-lived birds will forego breeding in order to save themselves if they sense a food shortage.”

Marcel Gahbauer writes, “I spent most of the second half of June along the Hudson Bay coast in northern Ontario, and the situation was pretty grim there too. The small rodent population appeared to be virtually nil, and a prolonged cold spring (said to be the worst in thirty years) took its toll on many birds even before a severe 5-day storm with high winds and freezing temperatures came through in late June. Few birds showed much breeding evidence even before the storm, and I’d be surprised if many of the survivors started breeding thereafter - that far north it’s almost too late in the season already at that point. I don’t know how far the conditions I observed extended, but I expect that few juvenile shorebirds or songbirds will be migrating south from the region this year (waterfowl may have not been quite as severely affected).”

Marcel continues, “That being said, I’m not sure that such stories are cause for panic either. Yes, we are hearing about such “disasters” with increasing frequency. However, I can’t help but think this is at least in part due to the fact that so many more populations are being monitored than in the past. Had these same situations occurred 50 years ago, how many of them would we have ever known about? Even if they were in fact documented locally, news didn’t spread around the world as it does now. My gut feeling is that birds (and other animals) are facing more threats than in the past, both as direct and indirect consequences of human activities - though perhaps the increase hasn’t been as dramatic as it might appear. Whereas climatic variation such as I observed in the Arctic this summer has doubtless occurred occasionally throughout history, in the past that might have been the only threat facing a population, while now it is a stress compounded by loss of migratory habitat, pollution, etc. Still, the fact that most populations probably have at least faced climatic stresses in the past gives me some reassurance that they won’t necessarily be decimated by situations such as we’re currently reading about. I’d be lying to say that large-scale nesting failures don’t disturb me somewhat, but I remain cautiously optimistic that natural cycles can prevail if we manage to keep the other stresses from pushing populations beyond the brink.

From “down under,” Ricki Coughlan writes, “There are a number of Penguin colonies south of New Zealand which have also been failing in recent years due to plankton moving further south and fish stocks following. The Penguins simply cannot make the return journey from their rookeries to the fish stocks and back so breeding fails or is abandoned.

Even more frightening is how the Antarctic weather patterns have altered and now all the rain which used to fall on the southern mainland of Australia now falls on the Southern Ocean and it won’t be coming back any time soon. All of our main southern capitals are running out of water, with record low supplies and everyone on rationing for the past couple of years. Sydney has around 18 months of water remaining and what is there is the result of a week long deluge about 6 years ago. We’ve had no real rain in years. Some eminent scientists are saying that Perth, the capital of Western Australia may have to be abandoned, making it the first “ghost metropolis” of the modern era.

Meanwhile, back in Sydney, large trees along our streets are all dying, rainforests are shutting down and other forests are showing signs of great stress with dried up trees and quite a number even falling over as the soil is so dry that it cannot hold the trees up anymore. Whole forests are flowering out of season due to stress. Many species of birds are considered at great risk now as a direct result of higher temperature and environmental degradation.

Ricki concludes, “It’s just so sad and frightening to walk through a forest and know that the result of millions of years of evolution is under great threat and my feathered friends whom I so dearly love will soon be no more. So, in Australia, the fossil fuel and excess consumerism noose is now hanging right in front of our faces and it doesn’t feel so good.”

Even if the United States accepted the Kyoto Protocol, current estimates are that we need to reduce worldwide energy consumption by more than 70% to stabilize the warming trend—a far more drastic effort than the Kyoto calls for. It’s scary and grim, and not going to get any better until people come to the realization that we and birds and the other creatures on this little planet are all in this together, and unless we start caring, and doing, it’s going to end up badly for all of us.