Welcome to Big Blue Birdhouse, where I give updates and thoughts regarding bird-related headlines. We’ll focus primarily on topics like conservation and animal welfare, stories which closely impact the lives of birds in the world.
Trying to set up where the world is at right now in these areas is far too complicated for one column, or even a lifetime of summary. So I’ll throw around some miscellaneous headlines that have caught my eye these last few months, and focus primarily on recent positive developments.
First though, we unfortunately have to talk about the undemocratic elephant in the room. The Supreme Court has been a huge topic of conversation this year because the conservative majority has shown no shame in stripping rights away left and right. Birds are no exception. In May, the court ruled to limit the reach of the Clean Water Act specifically as it pertains to wetlands. I won’t get into the policy specifics, but instead I’ll refer to the interpretation of Manish Bapna, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The Supreme Court ripped the heart out of the law we depend on to protect American waters and wetlands… This decision will cause incalculable harm. Communities across the country will pay the price.”
Wetlands are crucial for birds. They’re used for raising young, resting during migration, congregating during winter, and serve as an important buffer during severe weather. With many parts of the country in drought and global temperatures rising, cool wetlands will be even more essential for many species to survive. We need to make sure we don’t lose any more than we already have, but instead the Supreme Court has made it far easier to destroy them in the name of development.
The Biden Administration has tried to be a part of the solution to these problems. Recently they made headlines in Politico for an interesting government program incentivizing farmers to try out new sustainable techniques and systems. Despite a growing political divide between urban and rural communities, Biden and his Ag Sec Tom Vilsack (who also served under Obama) have garnered support from the agriculture industry. This has some people nervous, worried that this will just be another stream of revenue for the same people who get all the money anyway. I’m optimistic that with the 1000+ offers for trials that the department has received, they can get the money in the hands of small farmers and academics rather than paying transnational ag corps. Vilsack isn’t always as tough on the prickly agribusiness sector as I would like him to be, but he isn’t in their pocket. I hope to see more reporting on how this goes. By no means are they going far enough in radically changing our agricultural output, especially when it comes to grazing, but they’re sinking $3 billion into this program which is certainly not pocket change even for the US Government. They’ve also used the Farm Bill to put another $500 million (over 5 years, ugh) into wildlife conservation. The American Bird Conservancy was very happy about it, and wrote about it as a win for the birds. I don’t disagree, it’s just the nature of compromise to always wish you’d gotten a bit more.
Another positive story comes from the New York Times: “Corporate Landscaping Lets Its Hair Down”. Increasingly, especially in California, companies are finding that lawns aren’t worth it anymore. Previously, having a meticulously maintained company campus was a big priority. As climate change gets worse, the needless waste of water and fuel and other environmental damages caused by large lawns has become an issue especially in areas facing drought. Sustainable style is also in fashion, as is a company being able to show how good of a boy they’re being on the environment. Landscaping is a very public face for a company, so many have taken to forgoing lawns in favor of tall grasses, ponds, wildflowers, etc. It requires less upkeep, holds storm water, is more efficient with resources, makes the company look like a more reliable tenant of the planet, and is just generally much better for the environment.
Not everyone is a fan. Many governments such as Los Angeles are incentivizing vegetated ditches known as bioswales to reduce runoff, and this whole dirty messy look for some is a stain on the image of a company’s property. Even supporters admit it requires a shift in philosophy. I for one welcome it, as huge lawns are a real problem. Now we just need to get rid of golf courses. When I own a home eventually, me and my wife plan on raising local plants that are pollinator friendly. In some subdivisions, this can raise disputes among bitter neighbors who want clean and uniform lawns. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of a street full of identical properties, even if I do like the look of freshly trimmed grass. For me, having sustainable homes is the least we can do. Changing our consumer habits seems a lot tougher: it requires choices to be made every single day. Choosing better plants, or solar panels, or whatever, just requires an upfront cost in exchange for a better world. And if I won’t give up A/C or electronics, the least I can do is get rid of Kentucky Bluegrass.
Finally, the most uplifting and bird-related story of the week. The Blue-eyed Ground-Dove, a lovely creature that is essentially extinct in the wild, has been bred in captivity for the first time. For 75 years they were believed to be completely gone, until a few were discovered in Brazil in 2015 and we learned that there was a small population barely clinging to life. Their habitats have been put under various levels of protection, close monitoring of their nests has boosted our data on the birds, but their numbers haven’t risen. Predation has been a problem, lack of genetic diversity has been a problem, plummeting habitat in the Brazilian forests has been a problem. Biologists feared they’d have no choice but to watch a species disappear before their very eyes.
Until this year, when two young Blue-eyed Ground-Doves were raised in a custom built aviary. They have adjusted well and seem healthy. This is a huge breakthrough, as next year they can bring in more eggs and begin to build a buffer population that will be safe and healthy. Eventually, a reintroduction to the wild is possible with increased numbers and therefore chance of survival. If it had not been pulled off this year, there was no guarantee the bird would have time to wait until 2024. There’s only 16 or 17 Blue-eyed Ground-Doves remaining. Which means that these two birds raised in captivity are 12% of the remaining population of their species. It’s unbelievable to think of an animal so fragile that one successful rearing can be so impactful. My thanks to the wonderful people who pulled this off.
And that’s all for this week’s column. Next week tune in for a Culture Corner column, where I’ll be catching you up on the state of our football coverage before the season starts this fall!