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Climate change for the birds

06 May 2020 | OP ED Watch

The mass extinction of North American birds, reported in 2019 and heralded as yet another coming crisis, has been cancelled. No, not in response to political pressure from the left. It seems that despite predictable media hype it wasn’t really happening. What is happening is a combination of ecosystem changes (like the ongoing expansion of forests into former agricultural lands) that benefit some species over others, and the continued problem of house cats and collisions with high rise buildings, and the usual problem of extrapolating from tiny and uncertain data samples. The apocalypse it’s not. Nor is it climate change.

Jim Steele, director emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, a self-proclaimed environmentalist turned climate skeptic and professional bird-watcher who contributed data to the original scary study, doesn’t just insist that the whole thing was overblown. He quotes one ecologist warning that making yet another false claim “hurts the credibility of scientists.”

Steele notes the recovery of species from pelicans to bald eagles and whooping cranes that looked doomed at the time of the first Earth Day. And the flourishing of ducks and geese despite being hunted. (Or perhaps, we say, because of it; just as cows are not endangered, a species that humans value tends to get looked after.) Moreover, the losses are concentrated in just 12 species and half a billion of the missing birds were in three “introduced species” that are widely regarded as disease-carrying annoyances and are sometimes actively targeted by pest removal firms, namely house sparrows, starlings and pigeons. In addition to their sins against humans, they also compete with native birds for habitat.

Another important point concerns the environmental crisis at the turn of the century. No, not the most recent one. The one around 1900 as cities in the advanced industrial world found themselves choking on the by-products of ubiquitous horses whose consumption of hay required massive deforestation for farmland. Luckily Henry Ford and others saved us from “peak hay”. But as the trees grew back in North America, species that colonize clearings, like the appalling brown-headed cowbird, declined while those that like the deep woods, like woodpeckers, rose again. (Yes, we know, every species is wonderful. But cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, then their hatchlings steal the food from or even toss out the other babies while the adults attack step-parents who don’t raise the intruders. It may be effective in Darwinian terms but it’s hard to applaud.)

OK, so other less dreadful species also suffer from reforestation, like Dark-eyed Juncos. But since it was human activity that initially felled the trees it’s hard for a real environmentalist to object to the restoration of a natural balance just because it hurts White-throated Sparrows.

An ecologist like Steele does want prudent human management not a totally hands-off approach. And he also wants to do something about the carnage caused by birds smashing into windows because they’re tricked by the reflections. Which seems to kill about a billion birds a year in the US, while cats kill somewhere between one and three billion. So there’s lots to do.

What has all this flapping to do with climate, you ask? Well, nothing. Which is rather the point. The study the New York Times swooped in like a hawk on a pullet, saying “The skies are emptying out” and “The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations” and taking out the robin along the way, announced in its first main-text paragraph that “Habitat loss, climate change, unregulated harvest, and other forms of human-caused mortality have contributed to a thousand-fold increase in global extinctions in the Anthropocene compared to the presumed prehuman background rate, with profound effects on ecosystem functioning and services.” And the study ended with another hack at this particular pinata, saying “Our results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification, coastal disturbance, and direct anthropogenic mortality, all exacerbated by climate change, to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna.” But in fact global warming plays no significant role in the story.

As we have said before, we regard the protection of habitats as a valuable task, especially as populations and urban areas grow. But we call climate change a pinata because if you want a slice of the many billions of dollars in government research funding available out there, it helps a great deal to wave the climate change flag. The problem is, if you want your research to be sound, it’s something of an obstacle. Even if the general thrust of the paper isn’t as wrong as this one seems to be.

One comment on “Climate change for the birds”

  1. I don't believe all this about cats killing birds. I kept cats for thirty years & they were all useless at catching anything. They just used to play at it. They probably get the sick & injured, but not the healthy, which is a benefit.

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