Year of the Bird: Can this sweeping campaign curb rising threats to birds?

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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First of two parts

The most ambitious effort to protect birds in a century comes to a close next week. Although its catalog of accomplishments ranges from enlisting thousands of new supporters to collecting reams of fresh data, the Year of the Bird faces a tough question:

Was the 12-month campaign powerful enough to make a difference on behalf of endangered species, or will it turn out to be mostly a memorial to an era of plentiful birds that’s slowly disappearing?

Led by the Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic and BirdLife International, the Year of the Bird project gathered 180 partners, 50 proclamations and tens of thousands of new supporters over the course of the year.

The campaign turned a loose collection of like-minded organizations into a coalition that can push for legislation, preserve habitat and rally supporters in the future. “The network is now in place,’’ said Miyoko Chu, senior director of communications for the Cornell Lab.

An example of Cornell’s maps that turn eBird data into animations of bird migrations by species. Look below to play video versions.

The project elevated Cornell’s effort to turn its birding apps into ground-breaking tools for visualizing migration and population trends. The apps are fueled by an army of 400,000 birdwatchers who record species to form a collective portrait more detailed than ever before possible. Last month, Cornell unveiled new technology that creates animations showing precisely where and how specific birds migrate during the fall and spring seasons.

The Year of the Bird was accompanied by a flow of stories, photos, videos and essays from National Geographic that took readers on a tour of the front lines of birding. The magazine launched its contribution with an essay by novelist and expert birder Jonathan Franzen, who took on the question of “Why Birds Matter.’’ It’s must-reading for anyone interested in the future of birds.

The Year of the Bird also inspired dozens of offshoot projects as partners came on board. In one example, a class of advanced graphic design students at Ithaca College heard a radio interview with Franzen and immediately went to work with Cornell on a series of  posters in support of the project.

“People participated in Year of the Bird in all sorts of ways, from the individual level to the global,’’ said Nicholas Gonzalez, an Audubon media specialist. “It’s always the year of the bird at Audubon. We never need a reason to celebrate birds. But this was an especially big deal.’’

And yet, right as the project was coming to a close this fall, a series of setbacks came along, as if to remind the organizations what they’re up against.

The Trump administration announced plans to abandon protection of the Sage Grouse in Western States to make way for oil drilling, shortly after opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration. Some 200 species of birds, from the Tundra Swan to the Snow Goose, rely on the fragile Arctic region and may be threatened by the change.

The news wasn’t good on habitat and climate change, the twin forces pushing about 1,469 species – roughly 13 percent of the world’s bird categories – into endangered status, according to BirdLife International’s latest report. 

Last month, the White House released, but then downplayed, its climate change report that warned of growing economic impacts. The report included an Audubon addendum that found about 50 percent of the nation’s birds will lose half of their habitats to climate shifts before the end of this century. In late November, another report said greenhouse gases have reached a new high.

Organizers are still assessing what they’ve accomplished during the Year of the Bird — and what might come next.

The most encouraging results may be the public support generated at every turn.

Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief at National Geographic, said her staff is analyzing the results of their contributions, which include a library of books, posters, graphics and 10 major stories on birds. The digital content alone generated 211 million views over the course of the year. One of the Year-of-the-Bird monthly challenges — for birdwatchers to share their own bird pictures — helped to bring in 13,000 entries to its YourShot service that collects and posts reader photos.

Here’s a sampling of the photos from readers published by the magazine as part of Yourshot’s “Beauty of Bird. The full gallery is linked above.

Supporters came out in record numbers for Cornell’s annual bird counts – the Backyard Bird Count and the two Global Big Days — that track the numbers of species.

The spotlight on birding also helped to make a success of Cornell’s increasingly sophisticated system for tracking birds with the help of its eBird app, through which its 400,000 volunteers posted more than half a billion sitings while birding this year. Cornell’s digital bird identification app, called Merlin Bird ID, has been downloaded 2.5 million times.

This map, focused on the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, is an example of the animations that track migrations. Go to the end of this piece for versions that will take you through the full animation — a fascinating visual to spend time with.

“These are tools that we had not had before this type of global participation. They’re really powerful,’’ said Cornell’s Miyoko Chu. “If we can detect how the birds are faring, when they need help, that allows science to better determine what to do.’’many 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Cornell)powerful,’’ said Cornell’s Miyoko Chu. “If we can detect how the birds are faring, when they need help, that allows science to better determine what to do.’’

The timing of the Year of the Bird was purposeful. This year was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Migratory Bird Act, which put an end to the widespread slaughter of birds to decorate hats and clothes with that era’s preference for exotic feathers. The 1918 act is credited with salvaging many species and saving the lives of billions of birds in the years since.

But even that legislation, which prohibits the killing of migratory birds in the U.S. and in allied countries from Britain to Mexico, is under pressure.

This spring the administration announced that it would no longer prosecute companies that unintentionally violate the law. In the past, wildlife enforcement agencies could fine people or firms that accidentally kill birds in oil spills, wind farm accidents or construction, for instance.

Researchers aren’t sure what those changes will mean for birds, but the outlook is not good when they’re combined with the loss of habitat, rising temperatures, development and weaker legal protections.

One of the posters created by the Ithaca College graphic design students focused on the October Big Day bird count.

Bird poster2  The Year of the Bird organizers say these forces simply ratify the need for campaigns like the one coming to an end this week.

They also point out that strategies for protecting birds need to focus on the longer-term issues of climate and habitat, as well as scores of more immediate, pointed efforts to alter threats to birds.

They include mitigating dangers that come in the form of windmills, farming practices and power lines; pushing for stronger laws in the U.S. and abroad; and forcing full enforcement of existing laws. If they can bring about change on smaller scales, they say they can make a difference regardless of progress on climate change.

“We can’t afford to give up either on today or tomorrow,” said the Audubon’s Nicholas Gonzales. Added Miyoko Chu: ” “At the Lab of Ornithology, we see there are grim trends. Even though the situation may be grim, we don’t give up. This needs to spur us to work that much harder.’’

Part 2 of this series next Friday will examine innovations in storytelling that came with the Year of the Bird project.

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Here are three map animations — for the Bald Eagle, the Redwing Blackbird and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird — that show these species’ migration patterns in the hemisphere. Cornell’s website includes animations for more than 100 species, and still more are being developed.

 

 

 

 

 

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