Where have all the birds gone?

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
May 2009

This is a query people have been calling and writing into the Audubon office.

 A few days ago, I met Todd McGrain, Associate Professor, at Cornell University, who starting The Lost Bird Project, which recognizes and immortalizes five North American birds (the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, great auk, and heath hen, the later a close relative of the prairie chicken) that have been driven to extinction by us, modern humans.  He is doing this by creating beautiful bronze sculptures of each species to remind us of the finality of our loss of these birds and to not forget them. But our duty is to prevent further human caused extinction of additional species.  The sculptures will be placed near where the last bird of the five species was last seen.  Examples of the sculptures can be found on McGrain’s website http://www.toddmcgrain.com/

Carolina Parakeets by John James Audubon.

 Interestingly, one of the proven last sightings of the Carolina parakeet might have been in Indian River County in March 1889 as Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, shot 15 specimens of about 50 birds on the St. Sebastian River.  In fact, it might have been at the newly named “Cypress Bend Community Preserve”, a recently purchased conservation land on the St. Sebastian River.  As described by Chapman, “The Sebastian is a beautiful river; no words of mine can adequately describe it.  Half a mile wide at its mouth, it narrows rapidly, and three miles above appears as a mere stream which at our camp, eight miles up, was not more than fifty feet in width and about fifteen in depth.  Its course is exceedingly irregular and winding; the banks as we found them are high and for some distance from the water densely grown with palms and cypresses which, arching, meet over head, forming most enchanting vistas, and in many places there was a wild profusion of blooming Convolvulus (morning glory) and moon-flower (Austin, E. S.  1967.  Frank M. Chapman in Florida:  His journals and letters.  University of Florida Press, Gainesville).”  Except for the loss of many cypress trees, this is a good description of this river site today.

 Unfortunately, humans probably were the main reason for their decline.  Some were shot for food and pleasure, others collected for caged pets, and over 800 specimens gather dust today in museums around the world.  Little information is known about the life and behavior of this species.  The last known individual died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 (Barrow, M. V., Jr.  1998.  A passion for birds:  American ornithology after Audubon.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.)

 We do know that the Carolina Parakeet was a very social species living together in flocks.  If one was injured by a hunter, the other birds would flock around it until all were killed.  This “devotion” behavior to each other was probably why they rapidly were shot in big numbers.

 In last month’s Peligram, Dr. Graham Cox reviewed how so many of our common birds are not so common any more.  The 2007 Wakeup Call Report based on combing through 40 years of data found that since 1967, the average population of the common birds in steepest decline have fallen 70 percent. The top 10 in this decline include the northern bobwhite, northern pintail, eastern meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, field sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, common tern, greater scaup but also cardinals, red-headed woodpeckers, brown thrashers, all found in Florida although some rare.

 Birds will go where there is food to be found. Although not a scientific study, many phone calls to our PIAS office indicate that there are less birds around in our members’ yards, including a former PIAS President who noticed fewer nesting in his nearby woods this year saying. “I have fed and watered for 20 years or more.  The birds that have totally disappeared numbering in the hundreds are cardinals mockingbirds, blue jays, catbirds, mourning doves, brown thrashers…. Believe it or not, I’m not even seeing any starlings, grackles, or crows, either.”

Besides habitat loss, other possibilities of the recent change in bird populations is due to climate change.  Nearly 60% of the 305 bird species found in North America in winter are shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles.  Extreme examples are the ring-billed gull, common here, has moved 355 miles further north, Wild Turkey 407 miles, purple finch 433 miles.  Even the Spruce Grouse, found in Canada, Alaska, and the northern edge of the contiguous United States moved 316 miles north.  These birds are telling us that there is a traumatic climate change occurring!

 Awhile back in the late 1800s and early 1900s ornithologists thought collecting specimens was the right thing to do, the Audubon movement today is to protect birds, other animals, and conservation lands.  As a reminder to the past and to honor a human caused extinction, I hope that one of the Carolina parakeet sculptures is placed in Indian River County.  The citizens of our county have done a great job in conserving our wet- and uplands.  Our chapter has played a large role in getting the voters of Indian River County to pass referendums in the amount of 76 million dollars in bond money to purchase and preserve our heritage.  We need to continue this leadership! 

From the Cornell University collection, a Carolina Parakeet killed by Frank Chapman along the St. Sebastian River on March 15, 1889. The other bird was taken near Tampa on April 13, 1883.

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