A sobering news release from the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service in late September 2021 suggested it was time to pull the hope plug on 23 species on the Endangered Species List (ESA), and declare them extinct. 11 of these are birds, with another 12 species including eight mussels, one bat, one plant and two fish species, which haven’t been seen for several decades.
Most of these species are found nowhere else in the world.
One bird, the Po'ouli from Hawaii, was last seen in 2004, but another Hawaiian bird, the Kauai nukupuu, was last seen in 1899. 10 of the bird species on the list are from Hawaii, and more than 650 other species of plants and animals on Hawaii and the Pacific Islands are listed under the ESA.
This is more than any other state, and most of these species are found nowhere else in the world.
The 11th bird, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, was once America’s largest woodpecker, and used to have a range across 14 states, but was last seen in northeast Louisiana in 1944 although anecdotally it has been suggested their last residence was Arkansas in the ‘60s. The report states that this and the other birds have all suffered population declines due to “loss of mature forest habitat and collection”.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland commented that while a few factors surely contribute, "the story arc is essentially the same – humans altered their habitat in a significant way, and we couldn't or didn't do enough to ultimately change the trajectory before it was too late."
This report is just one of several that have been issued over the decades, and a study published in July 2021 by the Tel Aviv University concluded that the world has lost 469 species of birds in the last 50,000 years, chiefly as a result of human activity, amounting to around 20% of all bird species this world has ever seen.
The authors were keen to stress that this was a conservative estimate, stating they expect the true number to be much higher.
Laws in motion
These are all horrifying, headline-grabbing numbers, and it makes it hard to think about the birds that get saved, but these do also exist. Although tediously slow and not as sensational or newsworthy, the machine of rulings and appeals grinds away in the background in the courts and in the governments, where people fight with the pen when the sword has no place.
The ruling is now being reversed, restoring decades of hard work.
Conservation organisations do their best in the meantime, acting within the many confines of the law and working on ways to combat those that prevent many species from receiving the protection they need.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is one of the world’s most important legislations and was passed in 1918 to combat over-hunting and poaching that supplied the enormous demand for feathers to adorn women’s hats.
This was spawned from a similar treaty between Great Britain and Canada, which came about after the formation of the UK’s RSPB, created by protests organised by two very influential women. The Act made it a federal crime to kill birds, or “take” birds or bird parts such as feathers, without special permission from the Secretary of the Interior.
1,026 species are covered by the Act, excluding those bird species whose populations have never been better such as European starlings, house sparrows, and feral pigeons.
One such ruling widely perceived to be detrimental to the protection of birds was made in the final year of the Trump Administration in the USA, and was due to be enacted in February 2021 but was successfully stalled by the new administration.
The ruling is now being reversed, restoring decades of hard work and powers to those responsible for overseeing the MBTA. The rule attempted to ensure that activities only specifically intended to kill birds could be prosecuted. “Incidental take”, such as allowing birds to drown in uncovered oil pits, would have been allowed with no punishment or enforcement.
Even though common-sense dictates a bird that lands in an uncovered oil pit would die, the company who left the pit uncovered would simply hbe able to say they never intended the bird to land there, and they were off the hook. As of 30th September 2021, this ruling is now defunct, a move applauded by bird lovers everywhere.
The new administration is also acknowledging the grey areas of the past that led to such a rule even being proposed and is drafting up guidelines to help courts decide when an activity violates the MBTA. Protections for birds are once again a priority.
Birds need you too
The news release from the ESA is keen to stress that, whilst protections were provided too late for the ivory-billed woodpecker and the other 22 species now thought to be long gone from this world, recovery plans created based on the data collated on the ESA have been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed.
In total, 54 species have been delisted altogether and another 56 species have been promoted from endangered to threatened since the ESA came into being in 1973. Successive and even current governments may well find other ways to undermine bird conservation for profit, but there will always be someone around to fight for the birds.
Citizen science is the fastest growing movement in the world today.
As bird lovers ourselves, we too will always do what we can to help populations remain stable, and a vital thing that you or I can do that requires very little effort is to help researchers keep track of all those birds that are still out there, by taking part in ground-breaking initiatives like the annual bird counts held in many countries.
Citizen science is the fastest growing scientific movement in the world today, and one of the few amazing things to come out of the pandemic. With a surge in more and more people discovering the outdoors and the wildlife that lives there, the world of birdwatching has received a huge boost.
You don’t have to wait for a bird count either, anyone that reports their bird sightings from anywhere, out on a walk, looking out the office window, at the feeders in our yards, provides essential data to analysts who can inform organisations like the ESA of bird populations.
No one likes to hear about species going extinct, but the only way we’ll know if they are in trouble in the first place is to keep a watch on how they are doing, and thus identify the factors that either harm or help them.