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posted: 5/16/2014 12:19 PM

Birders help protect species from 'dark cloud' of extinction

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  • Sharp-eyed birder Jody Zamirowski spotted a rare whooping crane migrating with a flock of sandhill cranes on March 30 at the Morton Arboretum. Whooping cranes once were on the verge of extinction with just eight birds. Now the population is around 500.

      Sharp-eyed birder Jody Zamirowski spotted a rare whooping crane migrating with a flock of sandhill cranes on March 30 at the Morton Arboretum. Whooping cranes once were on the verge of extinction with just eight birds. Now the population is around 500.
    Courtesy of Jody Zamirowski

  • Whooping cranes once were on the verge of extinction with just eight birds. Now the population is around 500.

      Whooping cranes once were on the verge of extinction with just eight birds. Now the population is around 500.
    AP File photo

 
 

An extinct bird, the passenger pigeon, is getting lots of attention this year. I'm good with that and hope you are, too. Every so often we need to pause from the "joy of birding" and think about the serious stuff.

Extinction is about as serious as it gets, and 100 years ago marked the end of the line for Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon. She died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. The story of Martha and her doomed species is well told in "A Feathered River Across the Sky," a new book by Joel Greenberg. The author chronicles how the most abundant bird species in North America dropped from 4 billion birds to none in 50 years. That seems impossible, but it really happened.

Audubon magazine last year estimated that 1,200 bird species face extinction over the next century, with many more suffering from severe habitat loss. There are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world.

More bad news: The American Bird Conservancy says fully one-third of species in the United States continue to decline as their habitats are lost or degraded to the point of being unproductive.

As we go about our birding lives, playing our listing games and chasing lifers, these realities hover in the background like a dark cloud. It's pretty obvious to avid birders that certain birds are in short supply around here, such as black-billed cuckoo, cerulean warbler, golden-winged warbler, grasshopper sparrow, rusty blackbird and upland sandpiper.

Older watchers may recall when all six were considerably more common. My last cerulean was in 1998.

Twenty-five bird species are considered endangered in Illinois, with five more listed as threatened.

Fortunately, a lot of good people care about saving our birds. Species once on the brink of extinction have been rescued, a list that includes bald eagle, wood duck, great egret, snowy egret, wild turkey, Kirtland's warbler and Eastern bluebird.

The whooping crane population once fell to just eight birds; now it's up to about 500. A captive breeding program saved the California condor, but its future, like the whooper's, is far from secure.

Success stories can be found locally, too. A really good one surfaced this spring when the Bird Conservation Network and Audubon Chicago Region released a population trends study on breeding birds for the period 1999-2012. The report shows that about half of our locally breeding species have stable or increasing populations. In fact, birds including Eastern bluebird, orchard oriole, Henslow's sparrow, bobolink and dickcissel were found to be bucking a national trend by growing their numbers here in northeast Illinois. (To see the report, go to bcnbirds.org.)

The findings are a tribute to the dedicated work of more than 250 volunteer bird monitors who devoted thousands of hours to collecting population data based on a standardized protocol known as "point counts." Data from DuPage County account for 25 to 30 percent of the 14-year database.

"The trends data show the positive impact of active restoration and management of the native bird species in our natural areas and wild places," said Bob Fisher of Downers Grove, an avid birder and past president of Bird Conservation Network.

Importantly, Fisher added, the data indicates where more work is needed. Certain ground and low-nesting woodland bird species are declining. Land managers face the challenge of how best to remove nonnative understory vegetation, replace it with natives, and then prevent over-browsing by the region's abundant deer population.

Like I said, serious stuff, and the deeper we get into birding the more we tend to care about bird conservation. It's a natural progression. If you are looking for ways to help, the Bird Conservation Network website is a good place to begin. Bird monitors are always needed.

You might also Google "ABC's Top Ten Tips for Bird-Friendly Living" for a handy guide, or check out "101 Ways to Help Birds" by Laura Erickson.

There are many organizations worthy of your cash. It's hard to choose. But one of the best ways to spend 15 bucks is also one of the easiest: Buy a federal duck stamp the next time you visit the post office. I love that program and I'm not even a hunter.

Finally, speaking of stamps, I'm fairly giddy about the new songbird series issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Buy some and use them on your envelopes. The stamps may not help birds directly, but they sure will get noticed, and that has to be good.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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