The 314

Black Oystercatcher

Eared Grebe. American Redstart. Bald Eagle. Herring Gull. White-throated Sparrow. Zone-tailed Hawk. Wood Duck. Blackburnian Warbler. Black Oystercatcher. Pine Grosbeak. Piping Plover. Rhinoceros Auklet. White-breasted Nuthatch. Peregrine Falcon. You know many of these birds well, I’m sure. Some may not be familiar to you, and there are a couple you might have never heard of. Regardless, they all have something particular, and rather unfortunate, in common: Every one of these birds is threatened by the impacts of climate change. And they’re not alone: 300 other birds share their uncertain future. All told, scientists with the National Audubon Society have identified 314 North American species imperiled by our shifting climate.

So what does that mean? Simply this: at the current rate of global warming, those 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their climatic range—the climate conditions they need to survive—by the year 2080. But that’s only a part of the story. Audubon’s broken those birds into two categories: climate threatened and climate endangered. Of the total, 188 are classified as climate threatened; they’re the ones at risk of major disruption by 2080. The remaining 126 are climate endangered, and for them the situation is much worse. They’re staring down the climate barrel a full three decades earlier. If we do nothing to slow the pace of change, by 2050 more than half their current climate range will have vanished like smoke. That means loss of habitat for nesting and feeding, loss of critical stopover sites for migratory birds, loss of food sources, unlivable temperatures… you get the picture. And all that translates to one thing: unless something changes, and I mean fast, the birds we love will disappear. Even the Mallard, perhaps the most well-known duck in the United States, is at risk: by century’s end, this most common feature of city parks and ponds could be largely gone from the lower 48—at least during the summer months.



It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Try to picture your favorite park without them. When no other ducks are around, the Mallards are there, breaking the silence with their raucous, comical quacking, males displaying their striking green heads. They’re a comforting and reliable presence, a welcome sign of life. A future empty of Mallards seems impossible. But it’s not.

Nor is a summer beach devoid of gulls. Perhaps the most successful group of birds, gulls are an integral part of any beach, fundamental to the experience. I have no frame of reference for the coast without them, but it’s not a joyful vision to contemplate. And yet if things stay as they are, if we continue down this murderous course, that could become our reality: of the 10 gull species listed in Audubon’s climate report, more than half are climate endangered—Ring-billed, Laughing, Herring, Western, and California among them. In our rapid and relentless destabilization of the planet, the lauded adaptability of gulls may have met its match.

And this was the picture before January 20, 2017. Against the worrying backdrop of environmental destruction and the looming specter of runaway global warming, it’s hard to imagine a more disastrous scenario than an EPA director who’s a leading climate change denier and has repeatedly sued the organization he’s now running, a President hell-bent on dismantling decades of environmental progress and ramming through his ecologically catastrophic agenda, and a Congress champing at the bit to open our public lands to resource extraction or sell them off to the highest bidder. And yet this is exactly where we find ourselves—being driven towards environmental degradation and collapse by a group of people too ignorant to understand science, too blind to see the truth, or too greedy to care. Given their way, Trump, Pruitt, and the GOP lapdogs in control of Congress will eliminate anything that smacks of environmental protection—including rendering impotent any regulations designed to that end—to the ruin of us all.

Laughing Gull by Aidan Griffiths

Fortunately, there are more of us than there are of them. Lacking anything resembling responsible leadership by many of our elected officials, it’s up to us to raise our voices against the coming ecological onslaught, and make it clear that clean air, clean water, ample habitat for the multitude of creatures with whom we share this planet, and a healthy, stable environment that supports the grand diversity of life on Earth are things we value, we demand, and we require, and for which we’re willing to fight. A block of angry voters speaking with a clear, powerful, and unified voice is a force to be reckoned with, and those who stand in defiance of the issues we care about do so at their peril.

Again, it’s up to us. We hold in our hands the future of the 314—those birds imperiled by our bizarre tendency towards destruction, even in the face of our own demise. And really, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not only the loss of a vast number of the birds around us—though that alone would be a tragedy beyond measure. It’s not simply the wholesale loss of innumerable plant and animal species—mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians—though that would be a biblical catastrophe. It’s the rendering as uninhabitable the only planet we know of that can support life

It’s the loss of us.

We aren’t somehow immune from the damage we create, removed from the consequences of our actions, or of our failure to act. Quite the contrary, in fact: Our fate is in our hands; whether we engineer our salvation or undoing is up to us.

Eared Grebe

At this point, there is still time, but the clock is ticking. The birds are the quintessential canary in the coalmine, and the alarms are sounding. If we act now, and quickly, we may avert the worst of the storm. It seems, though, that some loss is inevitable. We may not be able to save all the 314, but through dedicated effort we should be able to build a future for most of them. With hard work, care, a commitment by all to serious change, and a little bit of luck, Piping Plovers may continue to roam our eastern shores, Eared Grebes may still dive for prey in the waters of the west, and Bald Eagles—the icon of our heritage—may always stretch their great wings against the sky.


For more on the 314—including ways you can help them—you can read Audubon’s climate report here.




Of Competition And Transcendence

Bird-a-thonThe weekend of May 15-17, my family and I took part in the annual Massachusetts Audubon Society Bird-a-thon, covering our corner of western Mass for team Moose Hill. The event is presented as part fundraiser and part competition, but is really just an excuse to devote 24 hours to birding—and, apart from occasionally sleeping and eating, nothing else. From 6:00 PM Friday to 6:00 PM Saturday, teams representing all 57 Mass Audubon sanctuaries spread out across the state searching for birds, each one hoping to end the day having seen, heard, or otherwise encountered the greatest number of species—ideally without running off the road or collapsing in the field from sheer exhaustion—thereby ensuring victory and securing possession of the coveted Brewster Cup.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Our search began at home—under the feeders, to be precise—where we spotted one of the target species for the count: a beautiful White-crowned Sparrow, pale gray with bold white and black stripes down the length of its head. This species is only found in the northeast during migration, and never in large numbers—and when it does show up, it can be difficult to see. However, a few visit our yard for a week or so each spring and fall, so we were reasonably confident. This one showed up at the beginning of May and stuck around just long enough to take part in the bird-a-thon before moving on. We spent a few minutes in the company of the sparrow, then set off on a walk around the neighborhood. I had a particular destination in mind where I hoped to catch up with another, more elusive, target bird: I was looking for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and I had a good idea where we’d find one.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Sure enough, the bird was right where I expected. After a brief search, we heard its nasally call coming from deep within a stand of conifers—an unmistakable sound. The nuthatch called several times, and though we never put our eyes on it, we did spend some time with a beautiful and inquisitive Catbird who allowed us some very nice looks and a few photos before heading into the woods. A short walk farther on brought us to a brush-lined field where we found, among others, a beautiful male Indigo Bunting, a very vocal Field Sparrow, and a surprise flyover by a trio of Common Nighthawks, sounding off as they went.

Finished with our loop through the field, we headed off to our second stop: Winsor Dam, part of the Quabbin Reservoir’s great accidental wilderness, and a spot that’s been graced by some truly remarkable species—among them Golden Eagle, Pine Grosbeak, Parasitic Jaeger, Sooty Tern, and White-tailed Tropicbird. Though we didn’t find anything quite that rare, we were able to pick out a pair of Bald Eagles and a lone Spotted Sandpiper along the shore. As the last light began to fade, we heard a Woodcock’s sharp peenting, and the soft, distant call of a Whipporwill. With the day drawing to a close, we headed home to prepare for the next morning and what promised to be a spectacular birding adventure.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Saturday broke cool and early. After a quick check of the feeders (and a fortuitous Pine Siskin flyby) we returned to the Quabbin for a walk down through an area known simply as Gate 5—a designation that, though accurate, belies the avian bounty lying within. We’ve been coming here for years, and it always produces something wonderful, but during spring migration, it can be truly astounding. Today was no exception: a stunning pair of Blackburnian Warblers greeted us just beyond the gate, while farther along we encountered several of their cousins, including Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, and Blue-winged Warblers. We were also treated to great looks at a couple of usually secretive Wood Thrushes, and a single Veery—another local thrush that’s also typically shy and retiring. But there was one bird we were really looking for here, a bird that, outside our area, would be nearly impossible to find—and even within, it wouldn’t be easy. It’s far more often heard than seen, and if you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss it. We were looking for a Ruffed Grouse, and Gate 5 was our best chance.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Again, Gate 5 delivered. While we were searching for a Black-throated Green Warbler calling somewhere around us, we heard it: a low, nearly infrasonic thump-thump-thump, accelerating in tempo like a classic Harley starting up. It rattled our bones for a moment, paused as if for breath, and then resumed. After three repetitions, the grouse went silent, having said all he needed to for the time being. We listened for a bit longer, in case he had anything to add. Hearing no further comment and considering the matter closed, we continued on our way.

Reaching the water’s edge, we scoped a few surprise birds: five Common Mergansers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a small group of White-winged Scoters floating lazily on the lake—an uncommon sight this time of year and so far from the coast, and a very nice addition to our team’s tally. Once again, Gate 5 held to its reputation. We were thrilled: every bird we encountered was a delight, and we could easily have spent most our time here. This was a competition, though, and we had several more places to visit before the day was out. So bidding the scoters farewell, we headed back to the car and on into the day.

Over the next three stops, we saw some incredible birds: Great-crested and Willow Flycatchers; Orchard Oriole; Canada, Worm-eating, and Blackpoll Warblers; Louisiana Waterthrush; Warbling, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated Vireos; and many others. It was a spectacular day all around, but in Skinner State Park, near the summit of Mount Holyoke, we came upon something truly extraordinary.

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

We’d set out for Skinner looking for a ghost. Every year, a bird breeds on the mountain that’s so scarce and revered among birders its status approaches the mythic, to be spoken of in hushed tones and with great solemnity. Somewhere within Skinner’s 400 acres, Cerulean Warblers were nesting. And come hell or high water, we were going to find one.

Of course, we knew it was a long shot. Cerulean Warblers are small, few in number, and in steep decline. Searching one out in such an expanse of forest recalls a familiar scenario involving needles and hay. A singing bird would be a little easier to locate, but we were approaching the summit, and though we’d heard many birds on our way up—several warblers included—Ceruleans were conspicuously absent. Though we tried to stay positive, it wasn’t looking good: Without a sound to betray them, our already slim chance was evaporating.

We’d just turned around and started down the mountain when we spotted movement to our right—two birds flying together, small and flitting through the oaks. One disappeared deep into the woods, but the trailing bird landed nearby and began hopping around in the branches. Could it be? We dared to hope. Still, none of us said a word as we raised our binoculars and each put our eyes on the bird.

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

And there she was. Decked in aquamarine and white, we’d stumbled upon a beautiful female Cerulean Warbler, active, visible—and in the middle of constructing a nest. At first, we didn’t speak, just took long looks to confirm in our minds what our eyes were reporting. There was no doubt, though, and we watched her in awe, entranced by the story of life unfolding before us.

At that moment, nothing else mattered—not just the bird-a-thon, or the fact of our collective exhaustion and hunger, but nothing beyond the scope of this little warbler busy with her nest. Amidst all of the grim news, despite the encroaching press of humanity and our repeated assaults on the environment—thoughtless habitat consumption, oil spills that have become routine, gluttonous devouring of resources, our blatant disregard of the impending climate crisis and our frightening actions hastening its arrival—she carried on preparing a safe haven for her eggs and the chicks that would, in time, emerge and, with luck, give rise to yet another generation. Watching her pulled us out of the world of narrow human concerns and desires, and placed us, however briefly, in a larger reality in which we and the bird shared a connection—to each other, and indeed to all life inhabiting this blue marble we call home. On this great mothership of life spinning in the vastness of space, none of us is alone.

Building her nest was a hopeful act, in a time when hope is in short supply, and it made me feel that, though our situation is dire, all is not yet lost. There is light, however faint, in the darkness, and if we care enough to pay attention, it may illuminate a path out of oblivion.

Our way forward is cast in the shadows of the unknown, but it does not lead inevitably to destruction. In crises past, we as a people have joined together and overcome terrible challenges. We have shown resilience, resourcefulness, strength, and compassion, and in so doing have given testimony to the expanse of the human spirit and our capacity for true greatness. Now, we must do so again, for the need is strong and the challenge supreme. At stake is the survival of life as we know it—not just for the birds, but for the great panorama of all life, ours included. Whitman was right, the powerful play does go on, and we each may contribute a verse. It may tell a story of despair and destruction, or one of hope and renewal. But whatever verse we choose, and how the play goes on, is up to us.







Beaches Are (Still) For The Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Just over a year ago, Lawrence Harmon penned an opinion piece for the Boston Globe lamenting the closure of sections of two North Shore beaches during Piping Plover nesting season (I wrote about it in an earlier post, Beaches Are For The Birds). In his view, the plovers had rebounded enough and it was time for people to get their beaches back. A substantial amount of money had been spent restoring those beaches, and it wasn’t fair that people didn’t have unrestricted access to them.

Now, Mr. Harmon is entitled to his opinion, and I would never advocate the restriction of free speech, but he was, quite simply, wrong—as most readers took pains to point out. Of course, not all were against him, but those in support were as misguided as he. The problem stems from two things: a lack of understanding of what the plovers need to survive, and the failure to appreciate that the predicament they’re in is our doing.

It would be nice if Mr. Harmon’s piece were the end of it—if, duly chastised, he and those who shared his position realized their collective error, and all subsequent voices in the matter were raised in support of the birds. It would be wonderful if those of us who care about the plover’s future no longer had to expend energy educating others to do the same.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Sadly, that’s not the case. Piping Plovers are in the crosshairs again, at the center of a decades-long war on North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore between environmental organizations and a small group of off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts. After a precipitous decline in Piping Plover nests in the late 1990s to early 2000s—and a subsequent lawsuit by environmental groups of the National Park Service (which had been ignoring an executive order issued by President Nixon to regulate ORV traffic and protect the seashore)—in 2008, the NPS finally issued sound, sensible regulations and restrictions on ORV use during the short shorebird nesting season—much to the dismay of the rabid ORV lobby, who decries any infringement of their recreational pursuits. And though they’re quick to point out that ORVs are not entirely responsible for the decline of the seashore’s birds (which is true, though they bear the lion’s share of the guilt), the regulations have worked: by 2011, nests of Piping Plovers nearly tripled—and other shorebirds benefitted as well, including Black Skimmers, Least, Gull-billed and Common Terns, and American Oystercatchers. And it’s not just birds that began to thrive: in 2012, sea turtle nests broke all previous records, and pedestrians—safe from ORV traffic (and who outnumber the ORV drivers almost 100-fold)—started returning to the beaches, helping the local economy boom. It’s now a situation where everyone benefits: shorebirds and turtles can nest and rear young safely, pedestrians can walk the beaches, and ORV drivers can still use the seashore for most of the year. Everyone’s happy.

Or so you’d think. But the ORV lobby is at it again. This small, very vocal minority is on the attack, and they’ll accept nothing less than total victory: complete and unrestricted access to the seashore year-round, and to hell with the birds—or anyone else, for that matter. They’re loud, they’re bullies, and as far as they’re concerned, the seashore belongs to them. It’s a classic case of human entitlement, and it does not do us proud.

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

Red Knot © Shawn Carey, Migration Productions

Unfortunately, Piping Plovers aren’t the only ones at risk. Shorebird populations all across the continental United States are plummeting: since 1974, North America’s lost upwards of 50 percent of these long-distance migrants—an astounding 12 million birds, nearly half again the human population of New York City. So severe is the decline that more than half of the continent’s shorebirds made the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2014 State of the Birds Watch List—a dubious honor, as inclusion indicates a need for immediate protection. This year, one of these birds—the strikingly beautiful Red Knot—achieved another questionable accolade: it now appears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, joining four other shorebirds on a list that will over the foreseeable future only get longer. Again, this does not do us proud.

So what can we do about this? Sadly, I don’t have the answers. I do know this, though: we need to start by asking better questions. How can we balance the needs of human and non-human life? As the dominant species on Earth, isn’t it our responsibility to care for this planet and all who share it? Would a world devoid of all but the human be worth living in? How can we vouchsafe our survival and ensure that future generations inherit a world rich with the full diversity of life, and not one barren as the Moon? How can we, as a people, stem the tide of destruction and loss, and what can each of us, as individuals, do to help? And how do we want to be remembered—as the species that brought ruin to our world, or the species that saved it for all?

As always, the choice is ours.

What will you choose?


If you’re interested in learning more about the shorebird situation, you can read Deborah Cramer’s New York Times editorial here.

Ms. Cramer’s also done a remarkable job chronicling the plight of the Red Knot in her book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey.

If you want to get involved in helping Piping Plovers on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you can support the National Audubon Society’s conservation effort here

… and submit a public comment to the National Park Service directly through its website here, or through the Defenders of Wildlife’s site here.

Shawn Carey and Migration Productions have produced a wonderful DVD called Epic Journeys, about the migration of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Piping Plovers, and Red Knots. You can get more info about it here.

You can read about the history of the Cape Hatteras conflict in this article

this one

… and this one here.

And if you want to learn about the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Partnership, you can check out their website here

… or their Facebook page here.

Dying In The Midnight Sun

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Iceland is rich in natural wonder and timeless beauty, filled with panoramic views and otherworldly vistas. It is a realm of Northern Lights and boundless summer sun. And it is home to one of the world’s most charming and iconic birds: the Atlantic Puffin.

Every summer, thousands of these whimsical birds return here to nest and raise their young—joined in their efforts by Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Northern Fulmars, Razorbills, and Common Murres, who descend here in multitudes to feast and nourish their chicks on the bounty served up by the frigid North Atlantic. In all, 23 species of seabirds—including about a third of the world’s Arctic Terns and the vast majority of its Atlantic Puffins—rely on Iceland’s coastline, fields, and sea cliffs to shelter their young, and on the rich surrounding waters to feed them.

At least they did. Over the last decade or so, though, drastic changes have played havoc with Iceland’s seabirds: 10 years of breeding failures are decimating the once thriving colonies of Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Atlantic Puffins. Now, researchers are finding many historical nesting sites empty; in some places, where they’ve previously banded hundreds of fat, healthy chicks, they’re recovering hundreds of carcasses. In the hardest-hit areas, the cataclysm is total: all the chicks—an entire generation—are dead. Aevar Petersen, a retired ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has been surveying Arctic Terns on Flately Island for 41 years. Some summers, he and his colleagues have banded nearly a thousand chicks. This year, they’ve done five.

“Normally, there would be hundreds of birds here,” he says. “Now, there may be a few chicks. But they probably won’t make it. This is what we’re seeing in the whole of Flately, and further afield.”

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffins © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

On the Westman Islands—home to a mixed seabird colony so extensive that it borders on mythical—more than 800,000 Puffin pairs typically shack up and raise their young. No so today: this summer, during his regular Puffin survey, South Iceland Nature Center biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen finds burrow after burrow empty—a trend that’s been going on for more than a decade.

The devastation extends beyond Iceland. All throughout their ranges, seabirds are suffering. Says Petersen,

“What is happening in Iceland, we see happening in so many other areas in the North Atlantic. And the fact that we’re seeing them over such a wide area points to a common factor.”

So what’s going on here? What went wrong? In essence, drastic changes in Earth’s oceans—their chemistry, climate, food base, and toxic load—are affecting their ability to support life. Historical food webs are collapsing. And the one species directly responsible for the damage, Petersen’s common factor?


We chain-smoke fossil fuels, lay waste to our planet’s natural resources, dump garbage wherever we see fit, and poison the very systems that sustain life. We’re creating a toxic cocktail that’s pushing these birds closer and closer to the brink. Fortunately, there’s still time. Entire populations haven’t yet foundered, and seabirds are notoriously hardy: millions still cruise the Arctic skies and ride the North Atlantic currents. They can recover from a few bad breeding seasons. A few. But as population declines extend from years to decades, it’s only a matter of time before they pass the breaking point and disappear forever.

And then what? After we lose the Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes, and all the marvelous birds that blanketed the Icelandic landscape, who’s next?

Again, us. We are. Seabirds, says Carleton University doctoral student Jennifer Provencher,

“… are critical for detecting changes that are happening even more rapidly than we suspected. We are getting basically a year-to-year-to-year update of the health of the oceans and the health of the environment through these seabird studies.”

If there’s a canary in the North Atlantic coalmine, it’s the Atlantic Puffin. The North Atlantic is a major engine of Earth’s weather, and one of the most productive and important fisheries in the world; the Puffin’s troubles could be the intimations of a global crisis, one in whose remorseless grasp we may find ourselves, and which we may be hard-pressed to break. Holding to our present course may lead us to a bleak and dire future. These delightful, unassuming, comical little birds are sounding out the first warnings of a catastrophe that reaches far beyond Westman burrows. We would do well to heed them, for the demise of the Puffin may presage our own.

Even if it doesn’t, though, even if we don’t follow the Puffins into darkness, we will still have suffered a profound loss. We will have driven to extinction a charming creature whose only desire is, like our own, to thrive, to prosper, and to live free from harm or persecution—and when they do die, to do so on their terms, not through a brutal act of thoughtlessness and greed.

Our history gives me small reason to hope. And yet I do. I still cling to the idea that enough of us can shake off this madness and summon the will to change—that, in the final moments, we will save the Puffins and all their kin who fill the northern summer skies with cacophonous alacrity. We’ve done it before. In Maine, some 40 years ago, Dr. Stephen Kress launched Project Puffin and pioneered a method of attracting seabirds back to historical yet long-abandoned nesting grounds. In so doing, he engineered a seabird recovery that was nothing short of miraculous. Today, Dr. Kress still works with Project Puffin and the National Audubon Society to monitor and protect Puffins in the northeast United States. Across the pond, Tom Brock and the Scottish Seabird Centre are keeping tabs on Puffins among Scotlands’ islands; now, after several years of struggles, it seems that the Puffins have finally had a good breeding season. Researchers in Iceland—Petersen, Provencher, and Hansen among them—continue to watch over seabirds in the North Atlantic. And all over the world, voices far and wide are awakening people to the Puffin’s plight, educating them about conservation, and, through images and words, igniting in others the love they have of these delightful, remarkable birds.

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

Atlantic Puffin © Shawn P. Carey, Migration Productions

I don’t believe their fate is sealed. We can change direction, and shift to a course that ensures a future for Puffins, Terns, Kittiwakes… and us along with them—but we have to move fast. If we fail, then we’ll have let slip yet another opportunity to act for the common good. But if we succeed in hauling them back from the edge, then we may just save ourselves as well.

Photographer, filmmaker, and Mass Audubon instructor Shawn Carey (Migration Productions) has done wonderful work in capturing Puffins at their best. You can find his photos here.

He’s also posted a couple of Puffin videos here and here.

And you can stay on top of the latest research into what changes in bird populations are telling us about the health of the planet through Environmental Health News’ “Winged Warnings” series.

To A Cormorant’s Defense

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Cape May, NJ

At the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest lies Oregon’s East Sand Island. Closer to Washington State than mainland Oregon, this small atoll is a haven for a variety of resident and migratory birds: cormorants, terns, gulls, pelicans, loons, waterfowl, shorebirds, even several species of raptors—Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons among them—rely for some measure of their survival on the island’s scant 50 acres. For some birds it’s a critical resource: the world’s largest colony of Caspian Terns and the largest colony of Double-crested Cormorants in western North America call East Sand Island home.

It’s not hard to see why. The island is a veritable avian Shangri-La, providing ideal, predator-free nesting habitat and ready access to a bountiful supply of fish—something the cormorants, in particular, have taken full advantage of, feasting on young salmon and steelhead as they make their way from freshwater spawning grounds down to the open ocean. This confluence of factors has helped support a healthy and growing population of these spectacular birds, which today numbers around 15,000 breeding pairs. In fact, East Sand Island is the only place along the entire Pacific flyway where Double-crested Cormorant numbers are on the rise.

At least for now. In the very near future, though, the birds may be headed for trouble. Simply by doing what they do naturally—eating fish—they’ve run afoul of the Army Corps of Engineers, with potentially dire consequences. The salmon and steelhead that help sustain the cormorants are endangered, and the Army Corps—under whose responsibility the management of East Sand Island falls—is planning to do something about it.

They’re planning to kill them.

In a brutal and unprecedented act of wildlife control, the Army Corps is poised to destroy 16,000 Double-crested Cormorants—two-thirds of the Sand Island colony, and nearly a third of their entire Western North American population. Corps spokesperson Diana Fredlund justified its approach.

“We were mandated to bring the fish populations… back up because there have been a lot of declines. We’ve got all this money, all this attention to try and increase the survivability of the salmon and they’re going past these islands and all of our good work is going into these birds’ bellies.”

In a statement denouncing the Corps’ plan, Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Audubon’s Portland chapter, had this to say:

“The Corps has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to manipulate these birds for doing what comes naturally… Now they are proposing lethal control on an historic and horrific scale.”

This isn’t the first time this has come up. In 2012, the Corps, in conjunction with the US Department of Fish & Wildlife, field biologists, and students from Oregon State University, experimented with non-lethal means of control—gradual habitat reduction and hazing (scaring birds off the island before they nest). At the time, both methods met with some success, but this time around, the Corps doesn’t seem to even be considering either technique.

They also don’t appear to be thinking about a long-term solution. Unless they’re prepared to kill every cormorant on the island (or destroy the island itself), like a hydra this issue will keep coming back to bite them: New birds will arrive to fill the void left by the previous victims of the slaughter. It’s a perpetual cycle that will only be broken when people start tackling the real issue—and it has nothing to do with the birds. Do they have an impact? Of course they do. But birds have been eating fish since long before we showed up, and never caused the kind of population crashes we see in fisheries everywhere. The Columbia River’s salmon and steelhead were already struggling to survive, regardless of natural predation. The real issue is why.

In a word: us. The Columbia’s main branch is dammed at 14 points; 400 more dams are scattered throughout the complete river system, which includes the Snake River and more than 60 other major tributaries. In order to breed, both salmon and steelhead must return to the streams in which they hatched. Put a dam or two in the way and you effectively wipe out that river’s entire population: they die before they can breed. Fish ladders can help get the fish upstream, but they’re not foolproof. A dammed river also moves slower than a free-flowing one; for fish heading downstream, this lengthens their journey. A longer trip for a young salmon means more chances to die or be eaten—and that’s exactly what happens, sometimes through a cruel twist of irony. It turns out that some fish do exceedingly well in dammed rivers. The Northern Pikeminnow, for instance, thrives in a dammed river’s slower and warmer waters. And pikeminnow love to snack on young salmon. It was our actions, and not the birds, that put those fish as risk.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Sherwood Island, CT

But of course, it’s the birds that must suffer for them. At the end of the day, the real issue is this: we’ve lost our respect for nature, for connections and relationships formed over millions of years of evolution. We believe we’re somehow above it, removed from it, insulated from the consequences of our actions because of our vaunted position. We arbitrarily decide which species are good or bad, and eliminate those that don’t serve our needs. We manipulate the Earth to our own ends, ignorant of the damage we do in our passing, and then wonder when the planet’s support systems come crashing down around us. We are not above the animal kingdom—like fish, terns, and cormorants, we are an integral part of it, a piece of a larger system. We are all intimately connected in ways we don’t understand, and any damage to one part affects all. Our survival depends upon the health of the system and all its components; only now are we really beginning to appreciate this.

My hope is that enough people raise their voices against this plan, and in support of the cormorants, to force an alternative solution, and a true examination of the real problem. Perhaps if we all speak up, if we all show that our concerns extend beyond the realm of the human, we can begin to reforge those lost connections, and enter into a new relationship with our world and all its incredible, beautiful, and wondrous creatures. If we can do that, then perhaps there’s hope for us yet.


We have until August 4 to make our voices heard. Submit a comment to the Army Corps here.