The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation
Daniel J. Lebbin
University of Chicago Press, 2010
456 pp., $45.00
Saving the Birds
Never has so much energy been put toward saving an uglier, albeit impressive, bird than the California Condor. The 10-foot-winged vulture, which inhabits the mountains from Baja, Mexico, up to Big Sur and across into northern Arizona, is like an avian Uncle Fester. Its globular pink-orange head protrudes from its body, encircled by an effeminate collar of fluff. In 1987, after decades of attrition due to hunting, power-line collisions, and lead poisoning contracted from carcasses, only 27 condors were left. Then, under the most expensive U.S. conservation program to date, California zoos captured the birds for an innovative practice called captive breeding, and, by the early '90s, released some back into the wild. Though they are still critically endangered, about 400 condors now exist, and their numbers are increasing.
The condor's comeback is perhaps the best-known story of bird conservation in the United States, one propelled by burgeoning environmental concern of the mid-20th century and related legislation, specifically the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Yet if the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has its way, future conservation successes will be led not by Greenpeace members or EPA officials but by your neighborhood backyard birdwatcher. ABC is the only U.S. nonprofit devoted solely to bird conservation, and its new Guide to Bird Conservation aims to make the estimated 50 million birdwatchers in the U. S. the protectors of birds. The guide—a blessedly condensed version of its 2003 Guide to the 500 Most Important Bird Areas in the United States—is a fine layman's introduction to the species and regions that ABC believes need the most protection. It is for today's birders what Roger Tory Peterson's guide was for Americans in 1934, a specialist's gift to the curious layman.
Unlike a Peterson's, which helps users identify species, this guide spotlights the Virginia-based nonprofit's strategic conservation framework: species, then habitats, then general threats. It first lists 212 "Watchlist Birds," or those most vulnerable to extinction; then 14 "Birdscapes," or habitats with important birding areas; and, finally, general threats, including hunting, collisions, invasive species, and outdoor cats. (Ailurophiles beware: Cats are called the leading "anthropogenic" cause of bird decline, blamed for 532 million dead birds annually.) The information throughout is interesting and concise, complemented by colored maps, action steps, and lovely photographs. But I can't imagine most American birders lugging this guide on birding trips. Over half the Watchlist birds are endemic to Hawaii and Alaska, and several more live outside North America. That only 1,312 Akikiki—an adorable and "energetic member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family," reports Audubon—are left in the world compels me to visit Kauai to spot one. I'm less inclined to "evaluate captive-breeding program; manage habitat in the Alakai Wilderness and control or eradicate invasive species," as ABC advises. It's unclear whether users are supposed to take these action steps or simply know about them. I lean toward the latter; the action step given for the ivory-billed woodpecker is, "Continue search efforts, especially in Cuba."
What this guide makes clear is that protecting particular species, and not avifauna in general, will depend on locals—people who mourn the thought of their bird vanishing from their backyards and favorite trails. In other words, the Akikiki will be saved by Hawaiians. The ABC notes there's currently no national bird crisis around which to organize, no "singular and prominent 'smoking gun' of bird plumes, market hunting, DDT, or waterfowl declines." Climate change, oil spills, and hilltop mining all invariably hurt bird populations, but particular species are lost amid shrill pronouncements and legitimate concern over impact on people. A "commensurate public response" depends on "a single dramatic bird conservation disaster," note the authors under "Strategies and Actions," and we simply don't have a national bird crisis.
But we have plenty of local ones. I was surprised to see some Illinois favorites—the Swainson's hawk, the wood thrush, and bay-breasted, cerulean, and prothonotary warblers—on the Watchlist. And ABC provides exactly the practical tips I would need to take action: talk to my local birding group and Audubon chapter; join the ABC-endorsed Bird Conservation Alliance, a network of 200 local, national, and international organizations; urge legislation that protects the birds' habitats; and, simply, turn the lights off at night to reduce collisions for migratory birds. Simple enough.
Even still, will most birders, myself included, get worked up in the first place? "Birders, taken as a group, may be a bit less aggressive, less willing to fight for their interests than others," notes ABC president George Fenwick in the preface. "We are people who prefer a walk in the woods …. [Birders] want their hobby to be just that—a relaxing pastime, and not a cause for which to fight or pay." Fenwick concedes the stereotype, but it rings true. I try to imagine my parents circulating ballots and calling local officials to protect the habitats of the red-headed woodpecker. This striking, tricolored beauty is threatened due to an overabundance of European Starlings and the disappearance of savannas and swamps. I remember the first time our family spotted one. In the spring of 2006, exploring a tucked-away West Michigan swamp, we heard the wheezy queeah and churr-churr of a bird coasting from tree to tree. At first we assumed it was the red-bellied woodpecker, lovely in its own right but far less exciting as a find because far more common. Then we saw that blood-red head. Bending back with palm to forehead, my mom exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, Tim—it's a red-headed woodpecker." We felt that afternoon like the bird had been sent to us as a sign of unmerited favor.