Canaries In The Coal Mines: Thoughts For Endangered Species Day

Green-Winged Macaw - A Quillcards Ecard For Endangered Species Day

Where the Wild Things Are
It’s just a teeny-tiny drop of a contribution in the ocean of ‘how can I help wild creatures who have it rough finding enough food to exist?’, but I just love our bird feeder and the crew of garden birds who benefit from it.

We’ve got the type of bird feeder that sticks with suction cups to the window. This means that the birds who visit are right outside one of our rooms. Even as I write this, a blue tit is eating seed from the feeder even as it nervously scours the area for possible predators.

Sadly, the blue tit rarely seems to relax. Even so, I can manage to catch a peek at its beautiful blue cap, those long slashes of indigo-blue ‘eye liner’ that encircle its head, and its breast that’s the same shade of bright sunshine.

And no sooner have I written that description here than now a goldfinch and now a greenfinch are visiting for a snack.

Our Engaging ‘Customers’
I say ‘snack’ but of course, these creatures need to forage and feed constantly to gather enough calories to ingest to stay alive and keep well. And although our feeder is stocked with special high-calorie, high protein seed, no doubt these birds search for food around the neighborhood including in several trees that are right outside our window.

Even though we live in the central part of the city, we still get a good number of ‘customers’ (as I like to call our avian visitors) from several species.

We regularly see lots of goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, and blue tits, and then there are the wood pigeons who plop down on the sill to gather what falls out of the feeder since they are way too big to perch on it.

I like to watch wood pigeons on the sill eyeing little birds perching above on the feeder, as they watch for remains that they can munch on. And then there is the occasional, adventurous magpie who veers from nearby branches to hang out on the sill as well, though it is really too large of a bird to find enough room on our narrow sill to easily do that.

Wood Pigeon On Our Window Sill

All Is Sadly Not What It Seems
I have learned quite a bit about birds from my husband David who is a long-time birder, including that we frequently go to wonderful bird sanctuaries where I have also been learning more and more about different species.

However, I have lived for the better part of my life in or near big metropolitan areas. I think this means that my calculations about wildlife can still be quite off – and in this instance, about what is a little and what is a lot.

What I mean is this: When I rhapsodized and got more than a bit starry-eyed about “all” the birds that we see daily – David, who also adores seeing all the birds who visit us, has made me see a different perspective on this matter.

This stems from his experiences years ago when he lived in the countryside in Norfolk here in England where he would see large flocks of several hundred birds quite regularly, including species like lapwings or wood pigeons. Or flocks of 200 to 300 goldfinches who would feed on the scattered seed after the harvest, as he has also wistfully pointed out.

So for David, as he has taught me, the state of birds in England is not a happy one compared to his previous experiences despite the stream of birds taking advantage of our bird feeder.

Sadly, David’s personal experience of this is one shared by many and borne out by current statistics on the state of wild birds today in the UK and around the world.

All The Perilous Threats
In many cultures around the world, there is a strong love and bond between humans and animals.

This is true in the UK where there is a deep connection and affection – particularly for the birds here.

However, too many cultures have also been shaped by massive urbanization, intensive agriculture, deforestation, and depletion of fish in our oceans through overfishing.

And it is each of these plus many more factors that have led to an unprecedented number of endangered and threatened species. Included in those numbers are a long list of animals that are on the brink of extinction.

This includes bird species, who like other imperiled creatures have lived and depended on far different territories in previous centuries than they encounter today.

I may be more of a city person, but for the past 10 years or so I have become more and more painfully aware of this horrific state of our planet since I have been reading and become informed more about this.

For example, I learned more about various aspects of these perilous threats when we watched a rerun of ‘Birds Britannia’ recently, a fabulous BBC series exploring the ups and downs of wild birds in the UK.

This series was adapted from a book called ‘Birds Britannia: Why The British Fell In Love With Birds’ written by Stephen Moss, a naturalist, writer, and broadcaster based at the BBC.

And Then There Were None
Moss’s book explores many aspects of the interactions between humans and birds.

For example, even while people throughout the UK make special efforts to feed garden birds – domestic cats figure into the demise of species since they kill approximately 55 million birds each and every year in the UK.

Stephen Moss also brings out the story of the decline of the common house sparrow, a species that is sadly anything but common in the UK these days.

He asks us to consider a public place where house sparrows used to congregate, namely in Hyde Park which is one of the largest parks in central London.

As Moss points out, in 1925 there were 2,600 sparrows in Hyde Park. In 2000, the number was down to only eight. Today? Now there are none at all to be found there.

The Steep Decline Of The Ascending Skylark
“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”, began the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ode To A Skylark which he wrote it in 1820.

The English Romantic poets were favorites of mine when I was a teenager, so I have been familiar with this poem for a long time. Perhaps that is why the poem sprang to mind when I first heard The Lark Ascending by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

As it happens, this spine-tingling, gorgeous piece with its soaring violin that approximates the iconic bird’s flight was also voted Britain’s favorite piece of classical music from 2006 to 2009.

Now for skylarks out in nature: As I write this, I am recalling the first time I ever saw a skylark ‘in the flesh’.

David and I were walking in the West Sussex countryside one summer day when he excitedly said, “Look! A skylark! Look at how it’s soaring!’ And there it was indeed, ascending in glorious circles high up into the sky.

Well, we were lucky to see that skylark. When you think about it, Shelley wrote his poem less than 200 years ago – yet as Moss points out in his ‘Birds Britannia’, intensive agriculture has savaged the skylark so that it is now almost extinct.

Species On The RSPB Lists
House sparrows, skylarks – they are but two of the many species of birds in Britain who are now in grave trouble.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) along with other conservation groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have red listed amongst others the following well-known UK birds: lapwings, grey partridges, yellow wagtails, herring gulls, starlings, song thrushes, and cuckoos.

For example, the RSPB splits the UK’s birds into three categories of conservation importance that it labels red, amber, and green.

It classifies red as the highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent and immediate action. Amber is the next most critical group, followed by green.

The organization stresses that it never bends the rules. So that’s means that the nightingale population whose population has declined by 49 percent over the past 25 years is one percent shy of the 50 percent needed for the red list – but it’s mighty close indeed!

Canaries In The Coal Mine
Birds are but one category of animals, of course, and as we have all heard – things are looking bleak for all creatures in general: Based on the sample of species that have been evaluated through 2006, the highly-respected International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has calculated the percentage of endangered species as 40 percent of all organisms.

Each one of them is a canary in the coal mine, a dire warning about what is happening to our planet and what it is becoming.

As with global warming, many scientists say that if we don’t get our skates on now to turn around this statistic, the creatures who are going extinct now are put a portent of an even graver situation that lies ahead.

Endangered Species Day 2011
Trying to raise awareness of this situation, the United States Senate designated the third Friday in May as ‘Endangered Species Day’.

Five years ago, a resident of San Diego, California named David Robinson came up with this idea to create a day dedicated to endangered species protection. So he approached Senator Dianne Feinstein, a veteran Democrat senator from California, with the idea – and the rest is history.

Last year the US Senate brought forward that more than 1,000 species have official designation as being at risk of extinction while thousands more are also at a heightened risk.

Lemur Endangered Species Day

Networking To Protect Endangered Wildlife And Habitats
The Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) is an important coalition based in the USA comprising a network of hundreds of conservation, scientific, education and other organizations that are working to protect wildlife.

The members of the coalition include the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Humane Society of the USA, the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, the National Recreation & Parks Association, the Sierra Club, and hundreds of others.

As a social movement organization, ESC aims to network various organizations working to protect both endangered wildlife and habitats.

It is also the only organization fully dedicated to protecting the endangered species of the United States through grassroots organizing and stewardship of the Endangered Species Act.

On its Endangered Species Advisory Board for the Endangered Species Day, none other than David Robinson – as explained above, the man who started it all – works as its director.

Blossoms Depend On Pollinators

Quillcards’ Connection With The Endangered Species Coalition
Quillcards was asked to create, design, and produce a series of ecards for this Endangered Species Day, some months ago.

How did we at Quillcards initally hook up with the Endangered Species Coalition?

Well, both David and I are very interested in all things concerning the environment.

In line with these interests, I decided at the beginning of 2010 that I wanted to volunteer my time if possible for an organization dedicated towards making positive, important, and lasting changes for our planet.

The Endangered Species Coalition fits that bill beautifully, so I contacted them about the possibility of volunteering. I had in mind to use my professional background in writing and editing, and happily they were very receptive to the idea.

The Catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Then by chance in late April several months after I volunteered, the horrific BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill began.

By the time it was finally possible three months into the spill to cap the leak, this became the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. A whopping total of 4.9 million barrels or 205.8 million gallons ravaging the environment.

During the crisis, the Endangered Species Coalition created a site called ‘Oil Spill: Wildlife Crisis’ and I was kindly asked to research and write articles about a number of the endangered species.

The Lasting ‘Legacy’ of the BP Oil Spill
Along with the close to 7,000 dead animals accounted for and others lost at sea, so many species are still suffering from the long-lasting effects of this spill.

In fact just a few months ago in February of this year, a research team found thick patches of crude oil on the seafloor that do not seem to be degrading.

Therefore, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared “an unusual mortality event” ongoing since February of this year.

Recent Dolphin Deaths That Are 14 Times The Average
In fact, Reuters reported that the US government has been keeping a tight lid on its probe into the unexplained dolphin deaths along the Gulf Coast.

Scientists counted almost 200 bottlenose dolphin carcasses. The dead dolphins have been found since mid-January along the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. About half of those who died were newly born or stillborn infants.

This number is about 14 times the numbers averaged during that time of year between 2002 and 2007.

Mid-January 2011 also coincided with the first dolphin calving season in the northern Gulf since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster last year.

Burrowing Owl Endangered Species

Support ESC and ‘Endangered Species Day’ This Friday
Tragically, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster is but one of a host of events that have been occurring for decades now and which are spelling danger and death for so many living organisms in our world.

So let’s work to protect what we’ve got left!

You can help raise people’s awareness by spreading the word about Endangered Species Day and about the activities which have been organized throughout the USA for this Friday, May 20th by sending one of our special Quillcards Endangered Species Day ecards for the day.

  1. What a wonderful cause that you support. And a lovely article as well.

  2. Tamara Colloff-Bennett

    What a thoughtful, supportive comment, Tom – and I greatly appreciate your compliment about my article, many thanks!

  3. Wonderful article! So well-written and informative! Made me sad as well, being myself a great lover of birds and nature in general.

    • Tamara Colloff-Bennett

      Thank you so much for your compliments, nothingprofound (great name you have there…), I value them a lot!

      I’m glad you picked up on the tone as I was also low as I was writing it: The state of our bird species and nature in general is extremely depressing. What I think feels so difficult is how hard it is to know how best to contribute to help change the situation. The wheels have been in motion for so long. Thankfully, however, more people are becoming aware of what’s truly going on, and I what I hope for the most is that indeed it is not too late…

  4. Lovely cards and article.

    • Tamara Colloff-Bennett

      Many thanks, Sophie – glad to hear you enjoyed it all!

  5. The cards are very nice and I appreciate the information about endangered species.
    Jason

  6. As I write I can hear the house sparrows singing at our feeder. We also have Cape sparrows in a mixed flock with Cape and masked weavers.

    I’m wondering about the political/social blog you mentioned in Ari’s comments. No link that I can find or see?

    • David Bennett

      I took a look at your site and your wildlife looks wonderful.

      Tamara and I hope to see some big animals in Africa. Tamara has never been to Africa and I have never been south of the Sahara – so that’s on the list.

      About sparrows – since Tamara wrote this, there is a possibility that house sparrows have been making a bit of a comeback.

      I have seen more house sparrows this year than over the past three years we have been in England but I wasn’t sure whether I was just seeing more because I was primed to look for them.

      So I contacted Dr Tim Harrison, the Garden BirdWatch Development Officer at the British Trust For Ornithology, and he sent me charts that show an upward trend in sparrow numbers over the past few months.

      The BTO has observers all over the country – that’s anyone with a garden who wants to take part in the surveys – and just today I received my pack with instructions on how to take part in the survey.

      Watch this space for more on this!

      About my comment on Ari’s site – I didn’t put the link in because I didn’t want to use his site as a platform to link to my site.

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