Saturday, June 16, 2007

Birds in Decline!!!

A report was issued by the National Audobon Society recently suggesting that the populations of many common backyard birds are in decline. I have read several versions of this story but none of them include a complete list of species with the data pertinent to each. Do they think the reader is too dumb to interpret such material? Or are they themselves mis-interpreting it?

It seems to me that some species are down, others are up. Red-headed woodpeckers have been way down for decades. That is not news. Prairie birds have naturally declined as more prairie habitat, and even the margins of fields, are given over to producing corn so that we fatten our cattle and can liberate outselves from oil dependency!?

On the other hand, it strikes me that pileated woodpecker are far more common than they used to be. I thought brown thrashers were a thing of the past, but I saw three on a recent trip through rural Minnesota. On the other hand, how about the black-billed cuckoo? (I haven't seen one in years.) Then again, on a recent trip to the North Shore I noticed that the woods were alive with black-throated green warblers.

Continuing my quest to get at the truth about bird populations I finally arrived at the Audubon website where the research report originated. It contained a number of very complete and complicated statistical charts in an appendix, but little interpretation. The main page of the site was dominated by a list (with pictures) of the twenty species that seem to have suffered the most precipitous decline in numbers. No where was there a list of the species that have experienced significant increases in population over the last forty years.

Bald eagles would probably be near the top of that list, at least in my region, with cardinals close behind. Bluebirds have returned in large numbers, wood ducks seem to be much more common than they used to be, and wild turkeys have become so common that the other day one greeted me on my suburban doorstep as I reached out to retrieve the paper. Kestrels have fallen into decline, though pelicans and sandhill cranes seem much more numerous than they used to be. (It may be that I'm spending more time in the areas they pass through.)

All of this is anecdotal stuff. But the point should be obvious: as habitat changes, populations wax and wane. A more accurate report from the Audubon Society would make that point clear. There is a whiff of apocalypse hanging over reports of the "sudden decline in colorful little birds." It may be an effective way to raise money, and it may also be true, as far as it goes. But we deserve a more complete picture, if not in the wire reports that appear in the newspapers, then at least from the organization that conducted the study in the first place.

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