For the Birds Radio Program: Texas Drought
Right now Texas is in a devastating drought of historical proportions. Three weeks ago the Texas state climatologist warned state lawmakers that the damaging dry conditions of the past two years could rival the 1950s drought of record if rainfall remains below normal. Last year the drought caused $7.62 in agricultural losses, and so far this year looks no better.
I just got back from there, and can attest to the devastation. I’ve been to the same general area along the Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley four times before, and was struck over and over this time by the effects of the drought on the landscape and on the birdlife. We saw far, far fewer individual birds than I can remember ever seeing, and several normally common species were much more difficult to see, or we couldn’t find them at all. We found just a single flock of Cattle Egrets, which are usually plentiful. Loggerhead Shrikes were way down, disturbing from an agricultural standpoint because they consume so many grasshoppers—last summer Texas farmers grappled with a plague of grasshoppers as well as the drought. Without shrikes, they’ll be using even higher levels of pesticides.
Whooping Cranes are especially suffering. I went on the Whooping Crane boat tour that I’ve been on many times before, and this time there were as few cranes visible in the refuge estuary as I saw the first time I went out in the 70s, when the world population numbered a mere 79 birds. During droughts, salinity levels in the estuary climb, taking a huge toll on the cranes’ primary food source, blue crabs. Low crab numbers hurt the cranes in a double whammy. First, the cranes must travel about to find replacement food sources. After traveling all the way from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, their bodies are depleted and counting on a rich food supply that in droughts simply isn’t there. As they wander about, some are killed in collisions with wires and other obstructions, or simply by being too weakened. And wandering off the refuge puts them at risk of being shot by hunters. In early January, a hunter shot and killed one immature whooper on San Jose Island just outside the refuge, claiming he thought it was a Sandhill Crane, despite the fact that Sandhill Cranes aren’t legal game birds there. Someone in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department accidentally posted a draft report about the incident on the Internet, but that was quickly taken down. So far neither state nor federal authorities have taken any action whatsoever.
Second, those cranes that make it back to their breeding grounds will have extremely low reproductive success. The number of offspring produced each year is directly related to the number of blue crabs in the estuary. Droughts are part of life for these birds, but the amount of fresh water reaching the estuary via the Aransas River and other fresh water sources is declining due to all the water drawn off by agricultural and urban needs, so even in rainy years much less fresh water reaches the estuary than formerly, and the salinity during droughts reaches exceptionally dangerous levels.
I stayed in four different hotels during my week there, and only one had made any efforts to conserve water. When I stayed in Florida last month, which is also suffering from drought, hotels insisted on putting clean towels outside my room even when I had the Do Not Disturb sign up. It’s frustrating to hear more and more Midwesterners retiring to these states, exacerbating the heavy water demands on an area already so much in trouble, and then whining about how bird numbers have gone down since they moved there. The human population of Texas continues to grow—it’s expected to almost double in the next 50 years. We are supposedly the most intelligent species on the planet—the one who understands the concept of cause and effect. But the voices of those of us who want to protect the few tiny pockets of natural habitat remaining are being drowned out. Where there’s life there’s hope, but where there’s too much human life? I’m not so sure.