For the Birds Radio Program: State of the Birds, 2009
The State of the Birds A group of people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology spent February and March pulling all-nighters, drawing together the facts and figures and words and graphics for the United States of America’s first comprehensive State of the Birds report. My colleagues at the Lab were working closely with those at other conservation organizations and government agencies, piecing together mountains of data on what’s happening to our nation’s bird life; the report was released on April 19th.
The day after the report went out, I got a call from Anderson Cooper’s executive producer. He was putting together a related CNN blog story about how important birds are for the well-being of humans, and interviewed me about research on chickadee brains. He wanted to understand more about how chickadees regenerate new neurons every fall, and how research on this is centered around potential ways we humans might repair damage from strokes, head injuries, and even Alzheimer’s disease. He started the blog entry with the story of how on May 18, 1958, the Chinese dictator, Mao, who erroneously believed that sparrows were eating large portions of China’s grain crop, ordered the Chinese people, including 5 year old children, to eliminate the sparrows. Anderson Cooper’s blog entry quoted Judith Shapiro’s book “Mao’s War Against Nature,” to describe the slaughter in the words of someone who’d been 5 years old at the time. He said, “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We climbed ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings when they were coming home to roost.” This coordinated effort, by millions of Chinese children and adults killing sparrows and beating gongs at a designated hour all over the countryside, day after day, to exhaust the birds, basically wiped out the sparrow population. The next year locusts and other pests, a primary food source for the sparrows, devoured the grain crop. Without those essential predators, the sparrows, insects took over and a famine ensued. Millions of Chinese died.
I was grateful to the CNN environmental blog for emphasizing not just the declines of birds but why that should matter to all of us, even during economic hard times. The news in The State of the Birds isn’t good. Nearly every major ecosystem is under siege from threats including habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, invasive species, and overexploitation. About one in three of our nation’s bird species are declining, threatened, or endangered. The fate of Hawaii’s unique bird life is especially bleak: fully 71 species have been entirely wiped out—rendered extinct—since the first humans arrived there, and nearly every remaining native forest bird species there is declining.
But the major improvements in the prospects for Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Kirtland’s Warblers illustrate how much power the Endangered Species Act has when a bird is listed. Sadly, dramatic declines in several species, particularly grassland birds like sage-grouse and prairie-chickens, are sobering evidence of just how politicized the listing process has become. We need the same level of enthusiasm and resourcefulness that saved these Bald Eagles focused on saving grasslands and other important ecosystems if we’re going to help these charismatic and historically significant species. Links to the State of the Birds report and Anderson Cooper’s blog about the importance of birds are linked on my own blog at www.lauraerickson.blogspot.com. And if reading all this gets too depressing, take a break from seriousness by visiting my other blog, www.twinbeaks.blogspot.com, the first blog ostensibly written by birds for birds.