Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Bananas (and Coffee, Cacao, etc.) For Birds
Urbanites in North America may not think much about how their diet impacts bird populations, but Laura Erickson recently raised a question on the conservation through birding email list linking tropical food production to rain forest destruction and bird habitat loss. Production of coffee, bananas, oranges, and cacao generate huge social and ecological costs that North American consumers do not have to pay for in the market price of these foods. One interesting report online charts the ecological footprint of a banana. The Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture program is working to support more environmentally friendly ways of producing these tropical export items and lists certified distributors including Chiquita (click on their corporate responsibility link).

The shade-grown coffee movement has become popular in recent years, emphasizing ecologically more sustainable and bird-friendly coffee production. See the Seattle Audubon, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and American Birding Association resources on buying bird-friendly coffee.

In 1998 there was a global conference to promote shade-grown cacao (primary ingredient in chocolate). The Smithsonian resource page provides information on this alternative to ecologically destructive cacao monocroping.

It may take doing a little research, but North American consumers can find more ecologically sustainable tropical products--even if it may mean paying a bit more to know that your diet is not as threatening to the tropical bird habitats that support many of our migratory species during the winter months. Urban bird conservation is more than just protecting birds in urban areas--it means protecting and managing all habitats that urban birds depend on--including areas used to grow our favorite tropical foods in developing nations.
Global Warming and Urban Birds
A recently prepared report for the U.S. Department of Defense outlines possible problems and global security issues related to global warming. While possibly a worst-case scenario, the report addresses the kids of uncertainty that must be planned for in adaptive managment situations such as urban bird conservation. If U.S. weather patterns and global security issues change as outlined in this report, bird populations will be increasingly stressed while resources for dealing with biodiversity issues may be harder to obtain. While it is hard to know how probable the outlined scenario may be, it raises the questions of uncertainty and sustainability in the face of global climate change and insecurity.

At any rate, global climate change is likely to have an impact on bird distributions, timing of migration and breeding, and may alter songbird diets. Any attempt to manage urban areas for sustainable bird populations will need to address these potential effects of climate change.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Purple Martins
This past weekend I conducted a workshop for Purple Martin landlords. The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) has a lot of good information on how to attract and take care these birds--which are often called "America's Most-Wanted Bird." Other national organizations dedicated to these birds are the Purple Martin Society, N.A. and the Nature Society. The Purple Martin supports a growing industry of bird house manufacturers--including Lone Star Purple Martins, Trio, S&K, Heritage Farms, and Coates. The PMCA catalog or Purple Martin Society, N.A. catalog reveal myriad additional offerings for martin landlords, including my own book.

Martin house landlords are often passionately dedicated to their birds, spending many hours and lots of money on their birds. Martins are almost completely dependent on human-provided nesting sites east of the Rockies. Fortunately, these birds seem to do well in suburban locations, and martin landlording may become an increasingly important avenue for people to become interested in urban birds and bird conservation. One challenge is to get martin landlords interested in other birds as well.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Feeding Ducks
This morning I had to watch my two-year old son for an hour, so I took him for a walk to the University of Texas campus turtle pond. We watched the turtles and fed old bread to pigeons and grackles. This got me thinking about the importance of feeding ducks in urban culture. Most American cities have a place where domestic waterfowl hang out, and most of us have probably taken our old bread down there to feed the ducks.

Though most experts warn against feeding ducks, watching my son feeding pigeons this morning made me wonder if urban duck feeding might not be an important way for people to connect with nature. Critics would argue that domestic ducks are not natural. Others argue that bread is not good for ducks. Too many ducks can spread diseases among the ducks, and mess up the environment. Madison, WI has banned duck feeding in local parks. There are many other examples of cities trying to deal with duck-feeding problems.

Most discussions of feral urban ducks seem to focus on potential problems, but what about the experience of interacting with animals, of feeding them, in public. Kids love this. Might this not be an appropriate way to get people to start connecting with nature? What are the prospects of using urban duck feeding as a conservation strategy--a way to get people to enjoy and start thinking about the urban environment? Could cities place signage at urban duck feeding locations--maybe with duck behavior notes, or info about domestic duck breeds--something to help the duck feeders connect to the ducks while nudging them towards other ways of appreciating nature? While urban duck feeding can be a problem, maybe there are ways to turn this important cultural activity into an environmental education or conservation strategy.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Recent Southern California Fires and Endangered Birds
Protecting endangered birds in urban areas requires that enough habitat is present for animals to recover after catastrophic events such as hurricanes or wildfires. According to a recent news story, the fires in southern California last fall destroyed large amounts of critical habitat for endangered California Gnatcatchers and Least Bell's Vireos. The gnatcatchers lost 4% of their habitat, including 28% of their San Diego County stronghold.

Fortunately, the habitat can grow back, if it remains protected, but local bird populations will have to adjust to new landscape patterns and loss of nesting territories.

For more information on the California Gnatcatcher, see an abstract of a metapopulation study and an Audubon WatchList fact sheet.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

A nifty website from a course on urban forestry taught by Joseph Murray at Blue Ridge Community College--Overview of Urban Forestry. Good model for getting students to look at urban ecosystems, complete with lecture notes and assignments.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Yesterday I was able to attend a lecture by William Rees, the zoologist and regional planner from British Columbia who created the concept of the ecological footprint--the area of land needed to sustain human activity. Each American needs an average of 22 acres of land to support their post-industrial lifestyles. That is the land needed to grow their food and extract other resources, and to absorb the waste they create. This is more productive land area than is available in the United States, so we have to use land in other countries--grow lettuce in Mexico, extract oil from the Middle East, etc.

Nations, Cities, and Individuals each have ecological footprints (measure yours)

The ecological footprint concept illustrates that resources used by humans are resources unavailable to other species (including birds) and other humans (especially those who can't afford them). The land we use to grow corn is land that doesn't support the native woodland or grassland birds that would have previously occupied the area. Since the ecological footprint of a modern urban city extends beyond its immediate environs--true urban bird conservation must address rural areas used to support cities and the birds displaced in those areas.

In addition, we must address the sustainability of our bird conservation efforts. If our efforts to protect bird populations involve increasing our ecological footprint, they will ultimately prove unsustainable. Rooftop gardens, wildscaping, and endangered species programs are all effective--but costly, both monetarily and in use of resources. A largely unaddressed question in bird conservation is how to make our efforts ecologically sustainable from the perspective of resource use.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

From Australia, a great urban ecology program in Adelaide. BioCITY Centre for Urban Habitat will, among other things, seek to "bring back the birds" and look at roof-top parks or "bush-tops" as an alternative new habitat for urban centers.

A news story about the project.

Adelaide is way out front on many of these urban habitat issues, with significant official support--see page 1911 of these 17 March 2003 Adelaide city council minutes and an official background paper.

This may be the world's most detailed and organized attempt to improve the habitat quality of a city--a great model for what can be accomplished in a major city.

© Copyright 2004 Rob Fergus All rights reserved.