Friday, July 22, 2005

Some Bird News

Over the past week, there have been a series of articles reporting a finding by biologists that certain toxic hotspots in the Arctic resulted from pollution carried in the feces of seabirds, especially northern fulmars. The pollutants left in fulmar nesting colonies include mercury and DDT. I had avoided blogging about this earlier because the report is rather depressing; even relatively wild areas are being fouled by our excesses. It is also a reminder of how pervasive pollutants are; just as the seabirds are carrying such dangerous chemicals within their systems, we too are carrying many contaminants within our own bodies.

The reason I decided to write about this story now is partly because of the hand-wringing over the ivory-bill controversy. Several people have opined that the challenge to the identification of the Arkansas woodpecker as an ivory-bill might be used as an excuse for anti-environmentalists to roll back species protection and specifically to remove some protections set in place for the areas where the putative ivory-bill was discovered. I share some of these worries. But I think that reports like this one about the fulmars represent a greater challenge to environmentalists because it appears to let humans off the hook. From this editorial it appears that those worries may be justified:

It's harder to understand the careless conclusion that the birds were in some way responsible for the contamination.

American papers tended toward the simple birds-are-to-blame angle, describing their function in terms such as "trafficking." An Irish journalist, unencumbered by logic, wrote that the findings "will come as a shock to the guilt-ridden who blame us humans for putting the planet in jeopardy by damaging the polar environment. Though long condemned, as a matter of course, for the fouling of the Arctic, we have been found not guilty."

Amazing. As if the birds were synthesizing PCBs in their gizzards, or going out of their way to forage on foods rich in DDT.

Tom Anderson has noted a similar reaction when it comes to the effects of storms and other natural phenomena on endangered species around the Long Island Sound. In both cases, the real problem is not what the storms or birds are doing, it is what humans are doing to aggravate the situation.

Speaking of the ivory-bill, the online debate over the meaning of the identification challenge continues to heat up. Nature has a free article up about the challenge, but it does not give much information. So far the search team and sponsoring institutions continue to stand behind the finding. Among bird and science blogs, there were new posts on the subject by Hedwig (here and here), Nuthatch, Laura Erickson (here, here, and here), and Jon Christenson. Many more to come, I presume. Unfortunately we will just be able to stir the pot until more information comes out.

Finally, a new report in Science suggests that birds and other animals may have populations higher than their habitats can support, or, in other words, that they are hungry much of the time. Researchers are still trying to determine what this means for how animals compete will each other for food.