Monday, September 01, 2014

Passenger Pigeons and Conservation

Martha in 1911. From Arbor Day and Bird Day (1922).
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon. Martha likely hatched in captivity sometime in the 1880s and at some point landed in a small collection of Passenger Pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1910, she became the last pigeon left in their collection, and by her death in 1914, she was the last known Passenger Pigeon in captivity or in the wild.

In truth, Passenger Pigeons had been extinct in the wild for some time. The last recorded sighting was a wild pigeon shot in Ohio in 1900. By then the species had already been scarce for about a decade.

This was all the more shocking because Passenger Pigeons had once been so abundant, with a total North American population numbering in the billions. Early ornithologists such as John James Audubon remarked on the vast migratory flocks that could take days to pass. The pigeons bred around the Great Lakes region in vast communal nesting colonies. As late as the mid-19th century, Passenger Pigeons were still abundant. However, changes in technology made it easier for market hunters to locate flocks and nesting colones and ship thousands of carcasses to cities for sale as food.

The rapid decline and extinction of the Passenger Pigeon that followed was one of several events that inspired the early conservation movement. Federal laws such as the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 were too late to help the Passenger Pigeon but have protected other birds since then. They, along with the Endangered Species Act, can continue to protect birds (and other wildlife) as long as their protections remain in place and are enforced. The anniversary of Martha's death should serve as a reminder that no matter how secure or abundant a species may appear, it can disappear rapidly under the right combination of circumstances.

Some links on Passenger Pigeons:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Loose Feathers #458

Mountain Bluebirds / Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Birds and birding
  • The presence of mercury in the environment appears to alter the songs of songbirds, in addition to the other ways it harms birds.
  • Iceland's seabird nesting colonies have been decimated by a series of widespread breeding failures, much like seabird colonies in North America.
  • Some readers may have seen a graphic that compared the number of bird fatalities from various energy sources. There are a number of problems with this graphic. For example, it does not account for things like each source's relative share of the energy market. Another significant problem is that fatalities among some species are more significant than others due to their relative rarity. The wildlife harms caused by renewable energy sources should be minimized now before more massive wind and solar plants are built and cause even more bird deaths.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently changed its interpretation of several provisions in the Endangered Species Act in ways that could undermine protection for species that have lost significant chunks of their historical ranges or are only threatened in part of their range.
  • Salvage logging will proceed in areas burned by the Rim Fire in 2013 even though Spotted Owls have moved into some of the burned areas, which are also important habitat for other birds such as the Black-backed Woodpecker.
  • A genetic study of Wilson's Warblers found that there are six distinct North American breeding populations, one in the east and five in the west. The study was also able to tie these breeding populations to specific wintering grounds and migration routes.
  • Many African vultures have been deliberately poisoned because they alert wildlife agents to the carcasses of poached elephants.
  • When Northern Gannets search for food, they look especially for places where currents meet or upwelling occurs.
  • A court in North Carolina upheld the protection of beach nesting habitat from off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras.
  • The DC Snowy Owl was found dead in Minnesota this summer.
  • Common Ravens have continued their invasion of New York City with a possible nest in Manhattan.
  • The Madagascar Pochard needs a different wetland for nesting.
  • Many birds are exposed to conjunctivitis, but only a few species get sick from it.
  • The communal nests of Sociable Weavers can grow to massive proportions.
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, August 22, 2014

Loose Feathers #457

White-tailed Ptarmigan / Photo by Peter Plage / USFWS
Birds and birding news
  • Nine Hawaiian Crow chicks hatched at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on Hawaii; the world population of this species is now up to 114 crows. Hawaiian Crows are extinct in the wild, but a captive breeding program seeks to re-establish a wild population.
  • Thirteen birds newly recognized as distinct species based on older specimens are already extinct.
  • Magpies do not steal shiny objects; in fact, they are afraid of shiny things. 
  • There have been large discrepancies in the avian mortality figures reported for the Ivanpah solar plant. Here is a way to understand where they come from.
  • A Bronx resident created a bird sanctuary in a city lot that has become a city park.
  • The recovery plan for endangered salmon in Oregon calls for killing some of the cormorant colony at the mouth of the Columbia River.
  • First-winter songbirds tend to return north later than adults of the same species.
  • Ospreys have produced a pair of chicks in Cumbria, England, for the first time in 150 years.
  • A Glossy Ibis pair is attempting to nest in the U.K. for the first time.
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, August 15, 2014

Loose Feathers #456

Yellow-headed Blackbird / USFWS Photo
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, August 08, 2014

Loose Feathers #455

Wilson's Phalaropes / Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, August 01, 2014

Loose Feathers #454

Greater Sage-Grouse / Photo by Tom Koerner (USFWS)

Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, July 25, 2014

Loose Feathers #453

Greater Sage-Grouse / Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Birds and birding news
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, July 18, 2014

Loose Feathers #452

Wilson's Phalarope / Photo by Alex Galt/USFWS
Birds and birding news
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, July 11, 2014

Loose Feathers #451

Wilson's Warbler / Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS
Birds and birding news
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, July 04, 2014

Loose Feathers #450

Brewer's Sparrow / Tom Koerner (USFWS)
Birds and birding news
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity