Jun 24 2013

Bird Conservation

I am on vacation this week, so my post today is going to be brief and somewhat self-indulgent (probably redundant when referring to blogs generally). I am a casual birder. It started as a hobby I could do with my daughters, and it has turned out to be an excellent activity – it’s fun, it gets them outside when perhaps they would prefer to play Minecraft, and there is actually a ton of science you can teach in the context of casual birding.

The picture here is of a pileated woodpecker which I took yesterday morning. It’s a bit grainy because of the distance and the low light – it was early in the morning – but I like the way the sun caught its red crest.

The pileated is the largest extant woodpecker. This is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is really extinct, something which is somewhat controversial. You can tell this guy is not an ivory-billed because of the white chin and lack of broad white stripe on the wings.

I am currently visiting in Cumberland Maryland. We have pileateds in Connecticut where I live, and I have seen them on occasion, but not near my house. They will come to suet feeders, and I’m hoping one day a pileated will move into my neighborhood and visit my feeder.

By the way, Woody Woodpecker is a pileated.

Here is a picture I took this morning of a red-bellied woodpecker. These are also beautiful birds. The name has always bothered me, however. It’s most dramatic feature is a bright orange/red stripe along its head. It has a subtle red blush on its otherwise white belly, and somehow that is what it is named after. I suspect this is because there is already a red-headed woodpecker.

The red-bellied is a frequent visitor to my suet feeder, along with the downy and hairy woodpeckers.

Finally, here is a picture of a snail kite. This I took last year while on vacation in Florida. The snail kite is a locally endangered species in Florida with only 400 breeding pairs.

Snail kites feed on apple snails, which get their name from the fact that they are the size of apples. I saw them where I took the picture of the snail kite. When I learned that they feed on snails, I imagined small snails – but these guys are huge. Definitely a nice meal for a raptor.

Apparently the apple snail populations are decreasing in the everglades due to water management, and this is why the snail kite population is threatened.

I bring this up to segue into the topic of the title of this post – a recent report on bird species globally. There is some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that many bird species are increasingly heading toward extinction. Because of interest in birding, there is a great deal of data concerning bird populations, and this documents decline in many species. The primary threats are from agriculture, logging, and invasive species. Further, decline in bird species is a marker for threatened ecosystems generally. They are the canary in the coal mine.

The good news is that various bird species also provide evidence that conservation efforts can work. There are many success stories.

Appreciation for the beauty and diversity of birds is a great entry into the importance of conservation, in addition to being a great way to learn about biology, evolution, ecosystems, categorization, and other aspects of science in general.


24 responses so far

24 thoughts on “Bird Conservation”

  1. Should check out the movie “The Big Year” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1053810/), as a birder you will probably get a kick out of it. I’m not a birder myself but the movie was still quite entertaining. If you happen to have HBO on demand, it was on there a few weeks ago, I imagine it still might be. Enjoy the vacation!

  2. sowellfan says:

    I had one of those pileated woodpeckers (I’m pretty sure) show up in the trees by our parking lot a couple months ago. It was a really neat-looking bird, absolutely beat the crap out of a mostly-rotten tree.

  3. I saw “The Big Year”. I agree, it was a good movie, even if you are not a birder. But there was certainly a lot of special appeal for birders.

  4. Bruce Woodward says:

    I am not a birder, but I am forever grateful to the practice as I can now slip “jizz” into a conversation and fully justify it.

  5. BW: hahah!

    Don’t forget “tit” and “booby”!

  6. Mlema says:

    Nice pics Doc. Enjoy your vacation!

    I agree regarding: canary in a coal mine. Same with amphibians.
    And I think that while we work to improve agriculture, people can at least refrain from using pesticides or other chemicals in their yards/homes. Probably a lot of other stuff too, but – vacation 🙂

  7. evhantheinfidel says:

    And how have conservation efforts worked for monkeys? That’s what I thought!

  8. ConspicuousCarl says:

    evhantheinfidel on 24 Jun 2013 at 1:22 pm

    And how have conservation efforts worked for monkeys? That’s what I thought!

    Ah, we finally have an answer which the creationists will accept when they ask why, if we evolved from monkeys, there are still monkeys: Because of unconstitutional left-wing conservationist programs.

  9. DevoutCatalyst says:

    We had a lone pileated woodpecker as a daily visitor this past winter within city limits in our rural city of 5,000 in Wisconsin. Quite a sight ! Initially it went after the pure suet cakes we hang, but thereafter took a stronger interest in the mixed tree nuts we put out, which a local feed store sells in 50Lb sacks. Do not overlook tree nuts as a potential pileated attractant.


  10. esquared says:

    Steve, Just wanted to let you know how much I rely on this blog and SBM to keep me sane. Also, I’m a hummingbird bander in southern AZ so if you and your daughters ever come out this way and want to see hummers up close and personal and get to hold one in your hand, you’d be more than welcome to visit one of my banding sites. We monitor from mid-March to mid-October, every other week. Let me know if you’re interested and I can send you my web site with banding sites and schedules. It’s pretty awesome.

  11. Kawarthajon says:

    Wow, a raptor that eats snails, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Amazing. You wouldn’t think that a bird would need all that power and speed to hunt a snail. Now, if it were a monkey hunting snails, they would use their creativity, dexterity and ingenuity to capture the things, not brute force and speed.

  12. HHC says:

    I found out that I had a woodpecker in the neighborhood the other year after blaming my fence problem on the hungry local squirrels. This year I have a nest of sparrow bird babies in my yard :-))

  13. BillyJoe7 says:

    Around here we often see signs that ask us not to feed the birds – because they become dependant on us feeding them and then cannot fend for themselves when you’re no longer around. Is this a myth?

  14. If you consistently put out a lot of bird food what will happen is that the local population of birds will increase. After a couple seasons the larger bird population will definitely be dependent on the supply of bird feeder food, and if you cut them off many will starve. So, it’s not as if they forget how to fend for themselves, it’s just a matter of population and food availability.

    The other thing that happens is that the increased bird population attracts certain predators. We also have a dog, so he keeps away much of the ground-based predators, but we have hawks nesting near our house, some of them go after the local birds.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:

    Ah, didn’t think of that. Makes a lot more sense.

    There’s an elderly lady down the road who I visit every now and then who puts out food for the birds, attracting mainly parrots and rosellas. A dog two doors down also likes to visit her property so she provides him with a bone which he drags back to his kennel. Then she puts out the bird feed. I don’t think dogs are predators for birds but they seem to get a lot of fun out of scaring the hell out of them.

  16. Kawarthajon says:

    Here’s a report of a recent study on the bird feeding issue that I saw at Science Daily:


    These birds were only winter fed and had smaller, less healthy babies.

  17. Here’s a study that shows the opposite: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18252663

    Probably many variables – species of bird, food availability and quality, etc.

  18. papposilenus says:

    Aren’t hummingbirds also insect predators? Putting out feeders will attract them, and they love the sugar water, but they actually feed on flying insects, like mosquitos and gnats. At least that’s what my wife told me after she took an entomology class…

  19. Nate Greene says:

    “After a couple seasons the larger bird population will definitely be dependent on the supply of bird feeder food, and if you cut them off many will starve. ”

    I don’t have a problem with people feeding birds, but the above quote convinced me that I do not want a bird feeder. If I started, I would feel a strong obligation to continue feeding the birds indefinitely, even if I no longer enjoyed it. They would be dependent on me. And what happens when I sell my house or die? The thought of little birdies starving because of me is too painful.

  20. ChrisH says:

    Cool! We just drove around our state a bit.

    We saw what I think are turkey vultures soaring in the Columbia Gorge near the Maryhill Museum, a few hawks as we drove through the Yakima Valley, a couple of bald eagles, some ptarmigans on Mt Rainier and yesterday saw a pileated woodpecker as we left the national park.

    At home I have tried to plant bird friendly plants instead of feeders, including a couple of jasminium stephanense, which the hummingbirds love. Since I live near a natural wetlands area (which used to be a landfill), we get visited by lots of birds. There is a bald eagle nesting site about five blocks away, so I see them often. Plus a few weeks ago I saw a peregrine falcon land on my next door neighbor’s porch roof. The crows, robins and “birds I have no clue what they are” were going nuts.

    And there is a danger to having predator birds near by: the remains of their meals. I bought some several yards of white fabric from a garage sale, and after I washed it I hung outside to dry. When I brought it in there were blood marks I had to wash off. A few days later I found the remains of the bird that had been a raptor meal.

  21. ChrisH says:

    Also, the crows like to harass the avian predators, which I’ve seen, and is the banner of this website:

  22. ConspicuousCarl says:


    If you are willing to do it every day, maybe you can put out a quantity of seeds which is enough to attract attention but not enough for them to become entirely dependent on it.

  23. RickK says:

    Thanks Steve for raising this topic.

    Last year we enjoyed a near perfect vacation in Costa Rica. The natural beauty and friendly, vibrant people should put Costa Rica high on the destination list for traveling families.

    The first hotel we reserved was just outside San Jose in an area called Alajuela. A week before we left for our trip, the owner contacted us asking if we could scour our local pet stores for specialty food for baby parrots. The hotel (Pura Vida) has a relationship with a local macaw rescue project, and a global snafu in the baby parrot food market had left them short. We dutifully ran around and bought what we could find on short notice and carried it all down in a spare suitcase – a trigger for interesting discussions with customs agents.

    In return for the food we received an insider’s tour of the ARA Project. Some years ago a well-to-do American couple moved to Costa Rica and bought a large portion of (at the time) agricultural land outside San Jose. They set up a program to take injured and domesticated macaws (Scarlet Macaws and endangered Great Green Macaws), and breed them in such a way that the offspring could be released to the wild. To support the project they planted the land with fruit and nut trees and plants to provide a source of food for the parrots.

    Our family was fascinated by the experience – from the impossibly colorful adults to watching a caring young woman feed a 3-day old chick. Only a few babies require human feeding, and only briefly. The project works very hard to ensure the young are raised by the adult macaws so they can be released.

    Since its inception the project has released several waves of young macaws back into the wild. It’s possible some of the majestic wild Scarlet Macaws we saw later in our trip were offspring or descendants of the ARA Project.

    Unfortunately when the founders passed away, they made no accommodation for the land and their daughter has now sold the now valuable land to a developer.

    The ARA Project, with its 180 macaws (including ~35 breeding pairs of Great Green Macaws) is desperately trying to raise money to move to a new site. The site is available, but they’re struggling with the moving expenses. This is a low-budget, highly successful operation and I encourage anyone who wants to assist in continuing this productive conservation effort to visit their web page and consider helping them out.


    And of course, if you find yourself near San Jose in the near future before they’ve moved, I strongly recommend a visit.

  24. Jared Olsen says:

    “Beautiful plumage…”

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