For the Birds: Big news week for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-rumped Warbler in Selleck’s Woods, Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.

There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.

In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.

The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.

Although many factors go into the decline of a species, officials largely blame habitat loss and climate change for these latest extinctions.

There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944, and it was believed even then that the species was all but extirpated. I’m sure many of you will recall the alleged sighting in the Arkansas swamplands in 2004. Even though hundreds of expert birdwatchers and scientists converged on the area, the sighting was not confirmed, and the bird was not found again. The video of the bird was too blurry to act as confirmation, and it is widely believed to have been a pileated woodpecker.

The alleged sighting caused great excitement in the birding world, but also divided the birding community. I was hosting a radio show on birds at the time and spoke to several experts. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, firmly believed an ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted and brimmed with optimism that the bird would someday be found again. I read an article last week that quoted him as still holding out hope, despite the new designation.

Noted ornithologist David Sibley, however, was skeptical from the beginning. A video of my interview with him discussing the topic is by far my most popular YouTube entry.

The stark announcement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came with a dire warning that many more extinctions will almost certainly follow in the next 50 years. Officials are hoping the news and predictions will serve as a wake-up call for humans to do better about protecting the earth’s biodiversity.

Also last week, the White House announced it would bring back rules holding companies responsible for the deaths of birds that could have been prevented. The oil industry and utility companies pushed back on the announcement, claiming they will be held responsible for bird deaths not related to their practices.

A few months ago I wrote about being happy that the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship because their new arena was built with strict bird-friendly measures in mind. Last week, I read that the Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis will dim its lights at night until November to try to protect migrating birds. City lights can disorientate birds migrating at night and result in window strikes, which cause an estimated 300 million to one billion bird deaths each year. That’s a large estimate range, but it’s indisputably large either way.

Speaking of fall migration, if you have the time, check out www.birdcast.info. It shows real-time migration maps and data and is fascinating to explore. It also features predictive technology to estimate how many birds will fly over an area over the next three days and nights.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy New England’s most iconic season.

David Allen Sibley talks about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

In 2005, a bird sighting in Arkansas caused major waves in the birding world. It pitted experts against experts and beginners against beginners. The potential sighting was of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a large woodpecker long believed to be extinct. The sighting came along with a rough video, but not a clear enough one to answer any questions definitively. In fact, the video only separated the sides even more.

One of the skeptical experts was David Allen Sibley, who visited The Hour offices last month and I couldn’t resist asking his thoughts on the subject. The alleged sighting came in 2005, but the debate still rages on. Here are Sibley’s thoughts on the matter.