Latest For the Birds column: Is another extinction coming?

Photo by Chris Bosak Piping Plover at Coastal Center at Milford Point, April, 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Piping Plover at Coastal Center at Milford Point, April, 2014.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.


The 2016 version of the Connecticut State of the Birds report is perhaps the most disconcerting yet, especially with the mention of the “E” word

That word, of course, is extinction and it’s not a word bandied about lightly in the bird world. But there it is in black and white in “State of the Birds 2016: Gains, Losses and The Prospect of Extinction.” See? There it is right in the title of the report.

The word is used to describe the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which unless serious conservation efforts are taken (and are successful), “faces likely extinction within 50 years,” according to the report. Saving the Saltmarsh Sparrow is tricky because, as its name suggests, it is a bird of the salt marshes, one of the habitats most in peril.

The reports takes a look at bird population trends over the last 10 years. The Saltmarsh Sparrow may be the species most in danger, but unfortunately, the news is grim for other birds as well. Another denizen of salt marshes, the Clapper Rail, as well as shrubland birds Blue-winged Warbler and Brown Thrashers are also seeing steep declines in number. The Piping Plover, a coastal favorite among birders, is also continuing to lose ground, even though great efforts have been made to protect them.

The greatest threat to all these birds is the destruction of their habitat. They require a very specific habitat on which to nest and those habitats are becoming scarce throughout Connecticut and New England. It’s not like a Saltmarsh Sparrow can suddenly pack its bags and move to the woods to raise a family.

Milan G. Bull, Connecticut Audubon’s senior director of science and conservation, has been involved with all 11 State of the Birds reports. He said the dire warnings about the Saltmarsh Sparrow should be heeded.

“(The) most disturbing (trend), though, is the likely extinction of the Saltmarsh Sparrow because of sea level rise,” Bull said. “It would be the first avian extinction in the continental U.S. since the Heath Hen in 1931. There’s no way to characterize that as anything but a disaster.”

Chris Elphick of the University of Connecticut researched and wrote about tidal marsh birds. He made the eye-opening prediction about the Saltmarsh Sparrow.

“We now know these birds are in more trouble than was suspected, and that we need to act soon if we wish to protect them,” he wrote in the report.

So what can be done? The authors of the report don’t merely throw bad news out there. They offered several recommendations on what can be done to help these birds at risk.

Among the recommendations are: institute national policies to slow sea level rise and reduce global warming; land owners should look for ways to create, maintain or expand shrub-scrub habitat; meet state’s goal of protecting 21 percent of the state’s land by 2023; start planning and funding for a breeding bird atlas; and find “new and novel funding mechanisms for non-game conservation efforts.”

The news wasn’t all bad, however. Some bird species are faring better than expected. The Indigo Bunting and Prairie Warbler have seen gains in recent years.

It’s always nice to look at the bright side, but we shouldn’t be blinded by it. The dark side of bird population trends is much more illuminating and in need of consideration.


The PDF of the full version of the report may be found here.