Guest Post – an Opinion contribution by Tony Orman
A major new study on North American bird populations appeared in the journal Science recently. It included detail on research, led by Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that warned of alarming declines in bird numbers.
The research said the North American bird population had declined by roughly 2.9 billion birds, a 29 percent drop. It was, the researchers wrote, “an overlooked biodiversity crisis.”
The plight of the birds, “Is a Crisis for Us All,” said the New York Times headline.
Rosenberg’s team analyzed bird population monitoring data for more than 500 species of birds in the continental United States and Canada. Ten years of data from sophisticated weather radars, which pick up the movements of migratory birds, offered additional support. The researchers found that many bird species had made significant gains in population over the past five decades. But many more had experienced losses, yielding a net population loss of between 2.7 and 3.1 billion birds, centred around an estimated total of 2.9 billion.
“It was kind of a shocking result to us,” said Ken Rosenberg.
Meanwhile back in New Zealand the arrival of the migrant native bird the cuckoo, used to be eagerly listened for around October 1. The bird is small and is more often heard than seen, identified by its distinctive whistling call repeated several times. Cuckoos seemed everywhere but last year I heard only one or two.
Another native bird which has markedly declined in numbers is the kingfisher, once frequently seen sitting on roadside power lines. Now only occasionally while fishing the Wairau River, I might hear the kingfisher’s distinctive call.
On the upper Wairau River while trout fishing, there is no song of the cicada but only silence. Cicadas are important as food for insectivorous native birds such as fantail, rifleman, whitehead, grey warbler, fantail and others. For trout they are a considerable part of the summer months diet.
But it’s not only cuckoos, kingfishers, cicadas and other life that is silent. Agencies which should be concerned, are mute too. Birds have almost certainly declined drastically but bureaucracies and bureaucrats are thriving in number and dominance.
The Department of Conservation is just one bureaucracy that is duty bound by an act of Parliament to protect native birds such as cuckoo and kingfisher and invertebrates such as cicadas. But it is strangely silent on the demise of native bird life such as the native cuckoo and kingfisher and cicadas.
Nor do regional and district councils seem to show the slightest concern. In Marlborough the council’s Pest Management Strategy was recently approved by council and drew from some councillors, words of warm praise.
Yet the same strategic plan bizarrely excluded the rambling Old Man’s Beard as a pest because it is so widespread which reflects council’s inability and utter failure to combat it. In the same breath, the plan inexplicably declared wallabies a pest although none exist in Marlborough and the marsupial in 150 plus years has only just started to spread from its original liberation point in South Canterbury.
Council would rather chase imagined pests than deal with real, increasing pest plants. Not only mute they seem deaf to the ominous signs of bird declines that hint strongly at eventual ecological collapse.
As a teenager in the 1950s and for a couple of later decades, frogs croaked by every stream or marshy hollow and catching tadpoles was a major pursuit for youngsters. Now they have gone. Bees are struggling in numbers.
Evening mayfly hatches on the river are almost non-existent. There’s a big, big decline in insects banging into and being squashed on car windscreens after dark in country areas.
Are these apparent declines in numbers of wild creatures symptomatic of an ailing and declining ecosystem?
Moths at Night
Nearer home, moths in dozens no longer cluster around street lights or lighted house windows. Is any authority or agency concerned? Overseas there is growing concern
Last year, the International edition of “The Guardian” reported that the biomass of flying insects in Germany had dropped by three quarters since 1989, threatening an “ecological Armageddon”. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the foundation of food webs everywhere. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies had fallen by 90 percent in the last 20 years,with bumblebees dropping 87 percent. Undoubtedly chemicals have to be a major suspect in the downward spiral of wildlife.
Are we dowsing an environment with a unprecedented mixture of chemicals? Detergents
Household effluent contains bleaches and detergents that did not exist forty years ago. Are we dumping upon the environment via urban waste-water systems and widespread spraying of the country-side with agri-chemicals and insecticides and pesticides, a “cocktail of chemicals” of unprecedented volume and variety?
An indictment of the ignorant short-sighted lack of respect for the environment is that many urban areas still discharge sewage into waterways, either regularly or in substantial rainfall times. Chemicals, rather than cutting and composting weeds, is used on water ways.
Naturally farming practices have sought greater efficiencies and production. But don’t blame farmers. The authorities are at fault. DDT was replaced by diazinon for aerially spraying for grass grub. Although banned in the EU, its use is un-restricted in New Zealand. Diazinon is “lethal to aquatic life” and water bird life. That should concern agencies like DoC and Fish and Game.
1080 originally developed as an insecticide “by-kills” other life such as birds and animals. In essence, it’s an “ecosystem poison.” The Department of Conservation aerially drops 1080 on huge areas of wilderness public lands.
What does science say? Unfortunately science is a confused mess corrupted by a system of commissioned, paid science – in short money motivation. Some scientists have spoken out. But the system comes down heavily on them as it did on an eminent entomologist the late Mike Meads, who warned of long-term ecosystem damage following aerial 1080 drops at Whitecliffs in Taranaki. DOC shunned Mike Meads and his research.
The fury that descends on any scientist who steps out of line will ensure that their career and reputation will be in tatters. Consequently few buck the system.
Is New Zealand in Chemical Cloud Cuckoo Land?
Footnote: Tony Orman is a Marlborough based author and former chairman of the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations.
© Birds-lack of heralds ecological trouble?