President's Corner | Sharyn Magee

President’s Corner: A Sense of Place

Developing a sense of place in a people who have no deep ties to the land is a major challenge to the environmental movement. An intellectual understanding of ecology and conservation is a necessary but not sufficient requirement of building a sustainable grass roots environmental movement. People need a sense of deep connection with the land to create the emotional engagement necessary to sustain a lasting environmental ethic. In a highly mobile society where few people have deep roots, developing a sense of place is especially challenging.

The urgent question is how to evoke an environmental consciousness in a populace with no deep connections to the place where they live. Typical of our generation, my husband and I moved to New Jersey because of employment. Neither of us had any connection to the history or the land. My family did have a strong land ethic and love of nature with deep roots in rural Virginia. Roaming the fields and woods of my aunt’s farm nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and encountering its wondrous flora and fauna cemented my love of nature. In time the love of nature inspired by the Virginia foothills transferred to a connection with all wild places, including the nature preserves of the Hopewell Valley where I now live. The most deeply committed conservationists I know can tell a similar story of a special place encountered when young. Developing a deep love of nature and a sense of place starts with exposure to the natural world while young.

Young children have a sense of wonder and a natural affinity towards the natural world, but it is important to expose them to nature before other interests distract them. My grandchildren started hiking as toddlers in backpacks as did their parents. The oldest grandchildren now point out birds for me to name as we hike, send me pictures of birds to identify, and are beginning to learn the local bird songs. With children, exposure is everything.

Because of the urgency of the problem of unsustainably diminishing wildlife and native flora, we cannot only engage the young, as important as it is, and then wait for the next generation of young conservationists to grow up. Sensitizing adults who have lost or never had a sense of wonder for the natural world is a more difficult challenge. Exposing adults to charismatic species such as birds is a good starting point. Hopefully as people bird their local “hot spots” they make connections between birds and habitats and begin to care about the conserving the places they bird. Take a friend or relative birding. That act may help start a movement.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS

President’s Corner: The Sixth Extinction

Conservation biologists Paul Ehrlich and Gerardo Ceballos have raised the alarm about the impending human driven sixth extinction in their book, The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Nature, a must read for anyone concerned about the loss of biodiversity, and in a formal paper in the journal Science. In the latter article Ceballos, Ehrlich, et al conclude that “The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.”

I agree that the impending loss of biodiversity is the most serious aspect of the current ecological crisis and the most neglected by those in power. The loss of biodiversity is easy to overlook because populations die out slowly in in the human time frame, although quickly in the geological time frame. The loss of breeding populations is barely noticeable but as each population is lost, the species edges closer to extinction. Those of us who have been observing birds for decades notice a loss of numbers and of species but today’s diminished biodiversity seems normal to the young. Most ecosystems are resilient enough to adjust to the loss of a few species but as losses build up or a critical keystone species is lost, a point of no return is reached and ecosystems collapse, go through a period of chaotic instability, and reestablish themselves as less complex ecosystems with fewer species and interconnections. While no major terrestrial ecosystem has yet collapsed, several regional marine ecosystems have experienced ecosystem collapses resulting in a loss of vertebrate dominated ecosystems and their replacement with jellyfish dominated ecosystems, a simplified marine ecosystem that ruled the oceans over 300 million years ago.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is the prime driver of species extinction accounting for the unsustainable decline of more than seventy percent of the species at risk for extinction. Climate change and pollution exacerbate the problem by degrading habitats. The loss of biodiversity is universal. Tropical regions with their greater biodiversity are experiencing the greatest loss of numbers of individuals and species but temperate regions are suffering a higher percentage of loss. Migratory birds that rely upon temperate breeding grounds, tropical wintering grounds, and refueling and resting stops in-between are especially vulnerable. An astonishing thirty-seven percent of North American birds are at risk of extinction in the immediate future according to the 2016 State of North American Birds.

To reverse this loss, Dr. Ehrlich thinks that we should concentrate on populations, not species. By the time the species is threatened with extinction, only an expensive and time consuming sustained effort can reverse the decline and for many species heroic efforts are too late. Instead local populations should be identified and their habitats preserved to maintain a critical number of populations. This is where we can all help. Citizen Scientists are essential to identifying and monitoring local populations. The need is too great and the number of conservation biologists are too few to leave this job to professionals alone. EBird is an accessible way to contribute to the conservation effort, as is participating in the Christmas Bird Count, Bioblitzes, and other biosurveys. Once the relevant habitats are identified, conservation efforts can preserve and protect them. We are in a crisis but it is not hopeless. If each and every one of us does her or his part, we can still save many of the remarkable species with whom we share this planet. If enough species are saved, ecosystems remain intact.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS

Avian Intelligence

Recent studies in avian intelligence have shown that birds are much more intelligent than previously thought. Some bird families are now known to have brains that process information in a similar manner to the great apes and Parrots, Cockatoos, and Corvids have brain to body ratios that rival the great apes. The traditional linear ladder of intelligence with primates on top has been thoroughly debunked by rigorous cognitive studies of birds.

Corvids, parrots, and hummingbirds have given up songs for a complex vocabulary of calls that function as a language. Recent studies have shown that vocal learning occurs routinely in populations of wild parrots. Yellow-naped Amazons that roost together share a regional dialect of the “wa-wa” call with parrots that roost on the boundaries of two dialects, being bilingual. Dispersing juveniles learn the distinct   call of their new roost. In Australia Ringnecks and Galahs modify their contact calls to converge on the contact calls of conspecific flock members indicating socially driven vocal learning. Several species of parrots including Orange-fronted Parakeets and Spectacled Parrotlets have unique contact calls specific to individual birds in the flock. Female Budgerigars prefer bonding with males that use their specific contact call. As more species are studied, the evidence mounts that wild parrots have and know each other’s names.

Tool use has been reported among many avian species but New Caledonian Crows and Palm Cockatoos actually manufacture their tools. New Caledonian Crows make tools from either Pandanus leaves or sticks. The production of these tools requires multiple steps, indicating that the crow has a mental image of the tool before making it. The design of the Pandanus leaf tool varies regionally across New Caledonia in time and space indicating cultural transmission and social learning. In controlled experiments, New Caledonian crows have refashioned tools to solve problems. Male and female Palm Cockatoos cooperate to build a multilayered platform at the bottom of their nesting hole. Both sexes collect sticks, defoliate them, remove bark and side branches. The male breaks the sticks into the needed length by using his beak as a saw and then hands the stick to the female who splits it to provide a flat surface for the platform. Male Palm Cockatoos are the only non-human animal to make a tool to accompany their singing. The male fashions his drumming tool from a stick, adjusting its length to match his needs, and then drums the stick against a branch to accompany his vocalizations while fluffing up his feathers and raising his crest.   When a female appears, he extends his wings, inviting her to join him. Palm cockatoos are found in the Australian Cape York Peninsular and in the lowlands of New Guinea, but only the Cape York population is known to use the drumming tool, indicating that the behavior is cultural, not innate.

It is ironic that we are just learning about the amazing intelligence of many bird species at a time when thirty percent of all bird species worldwide and thirty-seven percent of North American birds are threatened with extinction. Because of their highly adaptable behavior and preference for open habitats or forest edges, most corvid species are stable, but species that have specialized habitat requirements or restricted ranges are in trouble. Persecution by humans in agricultural areas remains a problem and corvid numbers are declining where agricultural is spreading. Parrots and Cockatoos are among the most threatened avian families due to habitat destruction and capture for trade. Parrots are vulnerable to the loss of fruiting trees, especially in the tropics where they rely on a succession of fruiting species, and to the elimination of nesting sites, particularly where they require old growth trees for suitable nesting holes. Because of their beauty and intelligence, parrots are among the most sought-after birds for the extensive illegal bird trade. We are losing these magnificent creatures just as we are beginning to truly know them.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS