Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Wild, Weird and Wonderful: 2009 Review of the World of Birds

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Doug Brown.

‘Tis the season to reflect on things past and to make resolutions for the New Year. I’ve never been one to make a lengthy list of goals that likely would not be kept, particularly if it had to do with weight reduction, exercise, or similar lofty plans. Not that controlling one’s girth or indulging in more exercise isn’t important, but I already get more exercise than most of my friends, largely due the hundreds of bird surveys I conduct each year. And, the girth thing becomes ever so tiresome as we age, eating progressively smaller portions and eliminating one favorite, cholesterol laden food after another. Many are now banished permanently from my diet, as they probably are from yours, except for a few non-negotiable necessities, like cheese. Can’t live without it or, perhaps more appropriately stated, not worth living without.

But one of the other loves of my life, birds and bird watching, also is not negotiable. As 2009 drew to a close, I looked back over some of the highlights and lowlights that affected our feathered friends, not just in our own community, but in the larger community that is our planet.

Climate change and global warming and the potential impacts to all life on Earth is not a linear process as evidenced by breeding success for Arctic nesting birds, like the Snow Goose that winters in New Mexico. In parts of Canada, 2009 spring temperatures were well below normal with snowpack covering much of the tundra where the geese nest, causing a 90% reduction in breeding success. Other areas warmed early and then cooled again, causing flooding of prime shorebird breeding areas that were slow to dry, causing heavy nest predation.

Scotland’s sea birds; however, had their best breeding season in more than a decade. The news was cause for elation after 10 years of repeated breeding failures for some species. The reason for the change is attributed to colder water temperatures that benefitted a prime food source, the sand eel, which were then available to seabirds throughout the nesting season. At the North Hill Preserve, Arctic Terns successfully fledged over 220 chicks. In 2008, not a single chick fledged.

Closer to home, domestic cats are again making the news. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that household pets and their feral cousins kill more than 100 million birds each year, The miniature backyard hunters that prey on everything from rabbits, birds, lizards, and mice, have, in some areas, become the hunted. A new study conducted in Tucson, Arizona shows that domestic cats were the most common meal of urban coyotes, comprising 42% of their diet. Paul Krausman, coauthor of the study and professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana reported that the number of cats killed by coyotes in the West is much higher than many people think.

In California, a superior court judge ruled in favor of a coalition of conservation groups to halt the controversial practice of Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) for feral cats, pending environmental review. The court determined that Los Angeles and the Department of Animal Services had been secretly and unofficially promoting the practice of releasing feral cats to roam free after being neutered. The public will now have the opportunity to participate in the process to ensure an open, science-based approach to the issue of free-roaming cats.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill increasing penalties for killing birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Particularly egregious killings would be treated as felonies with a fine of up to $50,000 and two years imprisonment. This is in response to several high profile arrests of roller pigeon racers. Roller pigeons have an unusual trait that causes them to tumble in mid-air, attracting the attention of raptors that view them as injured. The arrested individuals admitted systematically killing up to 3,000 raptors annually to undercover agents. The bill still needs to pass the Senate, where it is expected to have little opposition.

And, then there’s the simply unbelievable. Spooked by fireworks, Sadie, a petite pomeranian, leapt from the safety of her owner’s front porch and fled to the woods, destined to become a late-night snack for a Great Horned Owl. She was carried over the city for more than two miles, firmly gripped by the owl’s powerful feet and talons, when the owl lost its grip and dropped her. Imagine the surprise of onlooker, Jamie Padden as she watched the little dog fall from the sky right in front of her car with the owl in hot pursuit. As the little dog scrambled to get away, Padden leapt from her car, screamed at the owl, and scooped up little Sadie who was reunited later with her owner. Great Horned Owls are particularly effective predators, hunting under the cover of night, and taking prey up to the size of skunks. In general, raptors are successful in only about 20% of their hunting attacks. Suprisingly, Sadie suffered only bruising and tenderness around her hindquarters. Now that is one lucky dog!

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