Today is January 10, International Bird Day. Or is it?
Well, it’s actually kind of a riddle. In many Spanish-speaking countries January 10 is celebrated as “Día Mundial de las Aves”. May 9 is celebrated as Bird Day in other parts of the world, and the second week of May has been marked by the United Nations for the celebration of International Migratory Birds. In Europe, the birds of the old continent have their own special day, May 24. International Bird Day is also celebrated during the first week of October, as its name implies, internationally. Many countries have also set their own national dates for the celebration of birds.
Riddle or not, it’s always Bird Day here at RIDE INTO BIRDLAND, and today seems like a perfect for our first post of 2013.
What all these Bird Days have in common is the aim to celebrate birds, promote bird culture and further the cause of bird conservation among people everywhere. Birds should be appreciated not only for their beauty, but also for their vital role as part of the planet’s diverse ecosystems. Birds are essential seed carriers, and some bird species also act as pollinators. Many bird species feed on insects, which would reproduce out of control were it not for their avian predators. Other bird species help keep a tab on rodent population, and of course carrion eating species perform important clean-up duty.
The disappearance of bird species may have many unsuspected consequences, as explained in this quote from the Endangered Species International website: “Some birds are considered keystone species as their presence in (or disappearance from) an ecosystem affects other species indirectly. For example, woodpeckers create cavities that are then used by many other species. After the extinction of the dodo, it was discovered that a tree whose fruits had been a primary food item of the dodo was unable to reproduce without its seeds passing through the dodos’ digestive tracts, which process scarified the seed coat and enabled germination.”
For further reading on this interesting topic, you may also check out the paper “Increasing awareness of avian ecological function”, by Cagan H. Sekercioglu, available here in pdf format.
Birds and humans have been connected since times immemorial. We have domesticated bird species that provide staple foods the world over (sunny side up or scrambled, anyone?), but more often than not our interactions with our feathered friends have been to their disadvantage. We have hunted birds for eggs, meat and feathers, sometimes into extinction, as appears to be the case of the Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), a shore bird native to North America that was hunted extensively for its meat, historical records indicating that up to two million birds were killed each year near the end of the 19th century. They were so abundant that their populations seemed infinite, but no confirmed sightings of the species have been recorded since 1963. Habitat destruction and pollution presently surpass hunting as menacing factors, and approximately 1200 bird species (which amounts to 12% of all living bird species) are currently listed as endangered, threatened or vulnerable. International trade of “pet birds”, both legal and illegal, is also a great menace.
According to Endangered Species International, at least a hundred bird species have vanished from the face of the earth since 1600, but that count does not even consider species that disappeared before humans managed to catalog them. As the XXI century unfolds, threatened species of birds are expected to disappear at an alarmingly faster rate. So alarming in fact that many scientists are warning we’re in the midst of a process of mass extinction, comparable only to the time of the disappearance of dinosaurs, over 65 billion years ago. But now it’s happening at a much faster pace, 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than usual, depending on who you ask. Habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, pollution, global warming and acidification of the oceans are the main culprits. Some scientists go as far as saying that before the end of this century half of the planet’s animal and plant life will be forever gone. Extinction is part of nature’s mechanics, but this accelerated rate has much to do with the impact of human activity on Planet Earth. You can read more about this alarming state of things here, here and here.
Right here in the Yucatan Peninsula we can mention at least two species of birds that are either extinct or in very grave danger of extinction. The Cozumel Thrasher (Toxostoma guttatum), endemic to Cozumel Island, was thought to have been wiped out by Hurricane Roxanne in 1995, until biologists spotted a single specimen in 2004, opening a narrow window of hope for the survival of this species (you can read all about it here). Another case is that of the Yucatan Vireo (Vireo magister), listed as “extinct” by The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (5th Edition), and last recorded in 1984 when a single specimen was spotted in Galveston, Texas. On the other hand, successful conservation efforts have resulted in restoration of the local population of American Flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber), which grew from 5,000 specimens in 1955 to a current estimate of over 20,000 birds. The Ocellated Turkey (Agriocharis ocellata) also seems to have been snatched from the hands of extinction, thanks to the creation and management of protected forest reserves.
So, today is Bird Day. We should celebrate birds, but not without taking some time to think about these issues and consider what actions we may take to lessen our impact on Planet Earth, however small and individual those actions may seem. We should recycle, reuse and reduce. We can plant native species in our gardens to help the local bird populations. We can also support local and international environmental organizations, like Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, among others. And we can do a combination of all these things. But we must act now, because we’re running out of time.
ATTENTION: INTERESTING UPDATE TO THIS POST!
The internet is truly amazing. On January 11 we received mail from Cagan Sekercioglu, author of the paper on “avian ecological function” we linked to above, when we first published this post. As it turns out, he’s our kind of birder: Cagan rides a KLR650 motorcycle, although not at this time of the year as you can judge from the photo below.
His credentials are most impressive: a conservation ecologist, ornithologist, tropical biologist and nature photographer at Stanford University Center for Conservation Biology, he’s also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In his email, Cagan writes: “I wish I were in Yucatan now instead of Salt Lake! I birded there in 2005 and had a great time. Thanks for the link to my paper. Here is a much more detailed one most people don’t know about. I wrote it for the Handbook of the Birds of the World and the target audience are birders.”
We get the feeling this will not be the last time you’ll hear about him in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. For now, what can we say, but THANK YOU Cagan! Here’s the link to the pdf file: Ecological Significance of Bird Populations. Happy birding everyone!