Aviculture Tips from South Florida’s Pros
Beloved author of Psittaculture, Tony Silva, and long-time AFA leader Buddy Waskey hosted a tour of select South Florida aviaries in the days leading up to the Organization of Professional Aviculturists’ (OPA) annual meeting. As Florida has enacted a framework of laws favorable to aviculture, aviaries flourish there. The warm weather, though dryer than the average rain forest, sustains parrots and their kind well year-round. Florida is a haven for both the pet industry and the development of husbandry science enabling the conservation of endangered and threatened species.
Florida’s “Right to Farm” Act now covers “the production of birds for the pet trade.” In effect, that means that aviculturists can readily establish aviaries on land zoned for agriculture. Florida Fish and Game alone has the right to come on such a property. On the rear of the Clinic wall above, note the posted permit.
Aviary construction abounds: and the “new” style increasingly features a central aisle with flight cages extending out either side, metal nest boxes, and for smaller birds, even flight cages hung from the central structure to avoid accumulation of detritus on the legs otherwise supporting them. Tony Silva’s aviary and second farm, an aviculture academy under construction, borrow from the world’s great psittaculture practices, especially in the interweaving of practical agriculture with aviary structures.
The first stop on the tour: Tony’s private aviary, an amazingly efficient ecosystem in design and practice: Tony imported trees from from around the globe to provide the fruit of the parrots’ natural diets. Importantly, parrots prefer fruits with minimal sugar: parrots navigate interspecies competition for food resources successfully as a result. The popular Western practice of feeding companion parrots highly sweet fruit only disrupts the natural equilibrium of their biological systems, exacerbating hormone swings, etc.
Of all trees, the coconut palm is perhaps the most useful of all aviary trees. Parrots will shred the outer husk off unripe palm nuts as enrichment, thereby also ingesting healthy amounts of fiber. The fronds stimulate beeding — and Australian galah cockatoos will even line their nests with coconut palm leaves in lieu of their usual eucalyptus, which is not easily come by even Down Under. The verdant foliage makes for a shaded, richly oxygenated environment. I thought I had stepped into paradise when I entered the aviary.
Note the length of the flight cages: for large parrots they typically measure sixteen feet in length, sufficient space for these large birds to fly. Each flight cage bears three heavy perches and a variety of enrichment objects, be they pool balls or palm fronds. You must let parrots be healthy parrots if you will reasonably expect them to be fertile and successful in reproducing. When Buddy Waskey showed me flight cages for the first time months ago, I was scandalized at the lack of access to the birds. Buddy had to hide a smile: these parrots are so aggressive when ready to breed that NOONE would want to be anywhere near them. Conversely, when they are sitting on eggs, they want noone near — do not disrupt such birds, lest they “scramble their eggs.”
Several elements critically must be well executed: water quality, clean bowls and cages, and veterinary preparedness. A neglect of water quality risks the entire flock, as it opens the door to diseases that can rapidly spread via the cage irrigation systems. Once a watering system is installed, the lines are vulnerable to various disease agents. At Silva’s aviary the local well water is filtered, treated with ultraviolet light and also chlorine — for a minimum of two hours. The amount of chlorine added is a function of the length of the pvc 80 grey pipe: chlorine evaporates more the longer it transits the system. And as for bowl disinfection, not even chlorine is the equal of direct sunlight.
The aviary maintains two quarantine rooms and two nurseries. Because macaws, like rabbits, ingest their immune system from their droppings but the droppings potentially contain microbes dangerous for other bird species, macaw chicks must be kept separately from other parrots. Lucky for Silva’s aviculturist neighbors, Silva’s state of the art clinic keeps extra units of everything to tide parrots from other aviaries over until a vet can be reached. Of course, as aviaries are in agriculturally zoned land only, a vet typically is quite far. Thus, to culture one’s own samples is critical in diagnosing and treating disease.
One of the few hazards facing aviculture in Florida is hurricanes: all breeders of exotic birds must have a hurricane evacuation plan and an evacuation/travel cage for each bird. According to one aviculturist, warnings for hurricanes typically arrive within seven days of the storm. This makes for demanding work: in the last hurricane evacuating his aviary required the labor of six men working ten-hour days for six days. Otherwise, the inviting constant sun means the birds are housed outdoors and receive more than adequate sunlight and vitamin D, a hormone critical to everything from fertility to whether a bird plucks. (Abundant anecdotal evidence indicates that when parrots who pluck moved to outdoor Florida aviaries, their feathers grow back promptly.)
On a nearby property, Tony Silva constructs his second type of dream aviary: an avicultural institute where students can intern for perhaps a period of six months and learn optimal practices. Below, some footage from an early morning walk through the developing site.
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Feral Macaws Muse in Coconut Palms
Coral Gables, Florida — The rubicund sun lengthened the shadows as we stood on a Miami flagstone patio craning our necks, gazing awestruck at six blue and gold macaws roosting high in the tops of royal palms. Fully half of the remaining flock has showed up to be seen, as if they knew visitors were coming.
They and their forebears have swooped in to this back yard every afternoon for a quarter-century — ambassadors of more than ten introduced bird species brought into the Miami area originally as pets. Over time, via escape or abandonment, some became free agents and formed flocks which have endured in some cases since the 1920s.
This particular flock numbered at a high of 44 macaws at the start of the decade. It’s down to twelve now. Most of the attrition has come at human hands, the hands of what we’d usually call “poachers”.
And therein lies the rub. Those who collect these magnificent creatures for sale at four-figure prices aren’t necessarily breaking the law, for these macaws are non-native species. Therefore, they are not protected as endangered species so those who shoot them down or trap them are not breaking the law and so cannot qualify as poachers.
Since the beginning of the ‘Teens, South Florida’s Bird Lovers Club has pushed for legislative or regulatory action to preserve these and other feral flocks by bringing them under the same protective umbrella as Florida’s native species. Why should these first-class air travelers be relegated to second-class treatment: harassment, gun-netting, glue trapping, chick theft and even being shot out of the sky? (Absent any violation of firearms laws, yes, even the latter can’t be prosecuted and has happened.)
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has spurned these entreaties. Its stance is that protecting the macaws would set an undesirable precedent. Next to come forward would be the reptile fanciers, then the bug lovers, and soon all of Noah’s ark would be dragged under that umbrella. The Commission insists it must hold the line against any exceptions for non-natives. Even those whose existence in the wild has become threatened or endangered.
Few of us have the opportunity to see these magnificent macaws in full, free flight; we should all have that option. Their lives in an urbanized environment far removed from their natural habitat are challenging, yet they’ve prevailed. What a shame if their saga were to end at the hands of human profiteers!
This particular flock is featured in several recent news pieces about the feral Miami macaws — (November 12, 2018) WSVN-Miami news video:
May, 2018 National Geographic video, shot beautifully:
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Staying Alive! in Kensington Gardens
These flocks of wild green Indian ringneck parakeets (Psittacula krameri) have oft caused visitors to London’s public parks wonder and surprise, the birds’ relative tameness occasioning the whipping out of phones and cameras. The ringnecks have also spread to nearby Kent and Surrey, their numbers estimated as anywhere between 17,000 and 35,000.
Presumably, the birds arrived as pets, an original few purportedly gifted by India to the Royals, the majority seemingly escapees from the set of an Isleworth studio’s famous 1951 flick, The African Queen. According to Oliver Marshall, the first known successful breeding pair went down in history in 1961.
Anika fell in love with these gentle, semi-tame birds on first sight. Having been involved as a volunteer at the park for several years, this winter Anika has devoted herself to keeping the Indian ringnecks and other birds of Kensington Gardens healthily fed throughout the winter. She had noticed how the young were particularly disadvantaged under winter conditions and has been particularly concerned about them.
Anika is raising money on Facebook to help defray the birds’ grocery bill; Anika travels to market at least twice weekly for provisions for them. The apples can be affixed to the wrought iron fencing and provide both energy and fluids over a longer period of time than the daily feeding. You can contribute to Anika’s winter mission, To Feed the Wild Animals Who Depend on Humans.
Below we provide some tips from RSPB on what you can do to help the wild birds in your neighborhood make it through winter:
- Identify each species feeding in your backyard and learn what that species needs in its diet.
- . Consider providing leftovers from your meals.
- Don’t give improper foods from amongst the leftovers: Avoid giving straight fat, as it can get on feathers and keep the bird from properly insulating itself, don’t give mould or salty foods (salt is poisonous to birds, expand this)
- If you give dried fruits, keep them away from your other pets for whom they are too rich.
- Provide fresh water and keep it from freezing solid by putting a wooden stick or plastic ball in it. If providing a bath, line the bath with polyethylene so that the ice that has formed can easily be removed by lifting the polyethylene. Consider providing warmth by placing a candle in a tin can underneath the water source, sheltering the flame from wind with bricks, or consider using a powered radiant element like an immersion heater or a light bulb place in a tiling pipe under the water. Add absolutely no chemicals as chemicals could compromise the birds’ feathers’ ability to provide insulation.
- Provide only what will be eaten in one day to avoid attracting pests to your backyard.
- 6. Clean feeders regularly to prevent disease.
- Participate in a 40 year-old global activity, the worldwide Big Garden Birdwatch.
- Plan ahead for what you can provide in spring and summer.
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Morbid Galah Mystery in Picturesque Burra
Mornings and evenings wild galah cockatoos congregate on the old brick streets of Sancreed Street in Burra, South Australia, by the old Police Stables and Lockup. But, as reported by ABC News Australia, on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, the urban clearing afforded a different view: lifeless galah bodies littering the ground. Mysteriously dead galah bodies. By July 23, over 236 had been counted. All in a mere fifty meter strip along Sancreed Street.
The news story broke from Burra resident Ruth Norris‘s July 20 Facebook post on “dead and dying galah.” A University of New England Animal Care and Rescue officer, Ms. Norris received two calls July 19 reporting galahs that were “not doing well.” Phone calls from the Burra area began to pour in: dead galahs on Sancreed Street. Ms. Norris warned area residents not to allow dogs or cats to ingest any dead galahs on the ground. Goyder’s Regional Council collected and removed the corpses from the public space. At the time of Ms. Norris’ posting, the dead galahs in that small area numbered 115. Within five days, the number increased to 236.
Several hours north of Adelaide, Burra features “an outstanding collection of 19th century civic, residential, church and Cornish mining structures, all located around” the Burra Monster mine. Built in the Old Colonial Regency style, the courthouse and police lock-up “‘An Historic Copper Town and the Merino Capital of the World,” present-day Burra is a 1940’s consolidation of five copper mine company towns, of which Kooninga, serving the Monster mine, was the largest. Copper, along with sheep and wheat, sustained the young South Australian economy: South Australia only became a British colony in 1838. At the height of the Monster mine’s production in 1859, Kooninga bragged a boom population of over 1,500 inhabitants. Today, however, Burra’s population maintains a steady approximate 1,000 residents, and the town proudly touts its National Heritage listing.
Built largely in the Old Colonial Regency style, central Burra’s government buildings, like the Old Stables and Police Lock-Up sported stone masonry fronts along with the more usual iron-bark wattle and daub of the era. Imported iron roofing replaced the thatching, of early settlement.
Sancreed Street, by the old Police Station, lies at the heart of the preserved town district. Further out, the residences featured brick fronts and the usual imported corrugated iron rooftops of the period.
As Ms. Norris clarified, all of the galah corpses dropped along a 50 meter stretch of Sancreed Street. Necropsy determined that all of the dead galahs were mature, disease-free and uncontaminated by any of the many toxins for which the cockatoos had been tested. Although it was winter Downunder and not “carting” time — when threshed grain arrives in town for transport elsewhere, which can lead to some accumulation of grain in the street — the cockatoos exhibited grain-filled crops. Yet area farmers had reported that, when sick, the galahs had not acted “grain drunk” as they may at carting.
The City of Playford council spokesperson (Playford is also located in the Adelaide environs) confirmed that South Africa’s Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) conducted and concluded its investigation, yet could not finally determine the Burra galahs’ cause of death, “they can’t rule out poison, as there are so many that won’t show up on the testing they do.”
Given the galahs’ full crops, by inferrence, the galahs ingested grain which had been either intentionally or accidentally tainted with an unidentified but lethal substance.
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Little Corellas Targeted
Thanks to the City of Playford’s council spokespersons for their assistance with this article.]
November 5, 2018, the Mount Barker District Council issued a “scaring” notice for Little Corellas, following their April 3, 2018 decision endorsing “selective legal shooting” of flock leaders, or “scout” corellas. The measures seek to discourage flocks, especially the largest flock, from summering in the area. Longer term the Council is undertaking habitat modifications like altering lake banks, in-planting beneath eucalyptus trees, and altering creek shorelines to make it harder for birds to access the standing water, and so discourage flocking.
Mount Barker, South Australia, just 21 miles from Adelaide’s city centre, is not the only local council to have taken action. In February, the Playford Council launched a campaign to remove the flocks of Little Corella “plaguing” the community. The Playford News reported that local complaints included that the “large and noisy flocks” damage trees, town squares, recreations areas, buildings and other infrastructure. “Infrastructure” is not a particularly clear term. Suffice it to say, the birds are known to cause damage to electrical wires.
According to Mayor Glenn Docherty, as reported by Playford News, the birds caused significant damage and escalating clean-up costs. Playford allegedly took action against the Little Corella having “been advised by bird-strike experts that recent weather patterns have created an abundant food supply for Corella to flock to Adelaide and its outlying regions.” Further, the Little Corella have lost some of their traditional range due to increased urbanization. In short, the City of Playford understood that without intervention, the Corella could potentially remain for months, rather than the usual several weeks, breeding rather than flying off to their traditional breeding ground.
Little Corellas, Cacatua sanguinea, also known as the bare-eyed cockatoo, blue-eyed cockatoo, or short-billed corella, is a smaller cockatoo native to Australia and New Guinea. Little Corellas weigh in at just over one pound, being about 15 inches/40 centimeters in length.
Long-billed Corellas (see below right), unlike Little Corellas, are protected under South Australian law. However, they may flock with Little Corellas. Thus, care must be taken in flock management of Little Corellas, that the measures not adversely impact protected birds. Shooting must be undertaken with caution, as the authority to kill a protected species is only granted by permit.
Initially Playford contracted to disperse flocks from known roosting, flocking and feeding sites with “bird-scaring devices and pyrotechnics.” In June, when damages had reached over $60,000, Playford changed tactics. Mayor Docherty indicated that fear-tactics had backfired– the Little Corella had started to associate large noises with fertile feeding grounds. So the City mobilized its two falcons, Ziggy and Lucy.
By update kindly provided by City of Playford’s council spokespersons, we can report that, in fact, falcons did encourage the birds to move on, in keeping with their general migrational path, breeding elsewhere. As a spokesperson explained, “natural predators trump noise (such as gas guns) as a deterrent. The birds have an innate fear of falcons, so just the appearance of them will drive a flock on – even if they don’t kill. It is a primal reaction and they understand that falcons mean death.”
While the Little Corella flocks overstayed their traditional period in the area, engaging in flock management meant the City could reduce expensive physical damage to infrastructure. Practically speaking, Playford’s spokesperson additionally pointed out that, the while loud sound deterrence did not drive away the flocks entirely, it did have valuable impact: “using noise as a deterrent will scatter flocks, which does ameliorate the damage of huge flock numbers in the thousands.”
Uplisted: African Greys and Econ 101
[Editor’s note: As edited Oct. 21 in response to corrections graciously provided by World Parrot Trust subsequent to initial publication. We humbly acknowledge that in this space we do not detail that organization’s critique of the Appendix II regulatory regime.]
On July 27, 2018 The Dodo published a superb expose by Elizabeth C. Alberts about the illegal wild-sourcing of African grey parrots with glue traps. Entitled “This is the Shocking Way Wild Parrots End Up as Pets” the article accurately portrays the cruelties of glue-trapping and other practices used in bringing wild-sourced parrots to the international black market. Sadly, the recent black-market surge was largely avoidable: the poorly conceived up-listing of African greys from threatened to endangered status perversely increased the market share and number of illegally wild-sourced greys by throttling legitimate trade in aviary-raised parrots.
In the five years prior to the vote to designate African greys as endangered, aviary-bred grey parrots, primarily from South Africa, supplied approximately 80% of the grey parrots in international trade. That nascent industry had annually increased its market share. In short, four years after the greys were designated threatened, the aviary industry was rapidly supplanting wild-sourcing. In addition, the US and the EU, initially the regions with greatest demand, had banned imports, so their domestic aviaries presumably largely satisfied local demand. International demand, however, continued as the popularity of African greys grew in Asia and the Mideast.
After African greys were designated endangered, the Asian price remained largely unchanged: prices provided informally by some South African breeders indicate the price when designated as threatened was approximately $300/hand-fed aviary grey and $400-500/pair wild-source grey. and when designated endangered about $300-500/wild-sourced bird, with hand-fed aviary greys unavailable due to a dearth of export permits. In short, the up-listing throttled aviary-bred supply, drove market-share expansion of the illegal trade, and so increased incentives for black-market wild-sourced birds.
Even before African greys were designated threatened, the growing aviary industry satisfied an increasing portion of the pet market demand. At the time of the up-listing, the aviary industry was rapidly supplanting the black market. At that time, for instance, South African hand-fed aviary parrots sold at approximately $300 while a pair of wild-sourced brought approximately $500. The increasing quantities produced by aviaries each year between 2010 and 2015 suggest supply-side growth which would have reduced the going price and thus the profitability and incentives in the black market activity, as illustrated in the graph below:
Instead, as the prices above indicate, after the up-listing, it would seem, under conventional market analysis, that wild-sourced supply expanded even more than the equivalent aviary supply contracted, creating an oversupply which brought the price down slightly in the black market. Thus, the up-listing paradoxically destabilized the market and tragically appears, assuming constant demand, to have incentivized an increase in the number of greys wild-sourced per period, creating precisely the conditions depicted in the Dodo article.
October 2, 2016, the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP 17) of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, voted by secret ballot against CITES own Secretariat’s recommendation to reject Proposal 19, the proposed up-listing. The new listing on Appendix I would impose an exceedingly burdensome export permit system on aviary parrots.
The True Green Alliance reported that, of the conference’s 35,000 attendees, approximately 66% were non-voting observers, who had paid for the privilege of presence to lobby voting parties. IFAW, the International Federation for Animal Welfare, one of the world’s largest animal rights organizations, sent 38 representatives: animal rights activists, who oppose pet markets and aviaries in principle, appeared in force at CoP17. As reported by World Parrot Trust, implementation of the African grey up-listing occured January 2, 2017.
The anti-pet and anti-aviary animal rights impact on the outcome at CoP17 should not be ignored. An online petition from World Parrot Trust (WPT), mobilized popular opinion in Europe and the US in favor of Proposal 19, the proposed up-listing.
The petition omitted reference to the growing aviary market share:
“Over 1.3 million Grey Parrots have been legally exported over the past four decades. Many parrots are poorly treated and die before export; as a result, the true number of parrots taken from the wild is estimated at well over 3 million.”
Yet, in fact, over 490,000 aviary-raised greys were also legally exported, either in addition to or as a subset of this 1.3 million.* And for the last five years of the Threatened listing, aviary bred supplied approximately 80% of the international market.
The regulatory restrictions imposed by the Appendix II threatened listing in 2012 had hardly had time to achieve compliance, yet Proposal 19 argued that the system was unequal to ensuring the grey’s survival. However, regulatory ineffectiveness is not a recognized grounds for up-listing within CITES. Nor does political science support dismissing the effectiveness of a regulatory program which has hardly had the time to be implemented much less have fully developed enforcement policies and practices and so stabilized. It’s patently unreasonable to expect such magical results, especially when considering that implementation had to occur in underdeveloped economies with substandard technologies and communication systems. Furthermore, those citing such grounds in support of Appendix I listing failed to demonstrate why compliance issues could not be addressed on a state-by-state basis geared toward solving problems on the ground, rather than impose yet another new regulatory regimen for implementation on a global scale. That would seem to penalize those that did comply.
Typically, endangered status is granted due to habitat loss. The CITES Secretariat expressly recommended Proposal 19 be rejected for this reason.
According to Proposal 19 at the time of the unusual secret ballot, South Africa had over 1,600 African grey aviaries with a breed stock base of over 97,000 greys.
Under Appendix I, exporters obtain export permits from their national authorities. Subsequent to the January 2017 implementation, permit requirements were made yet more burdensome. Specifically, aviaries had to demonstrate that birds for export were at least two generations removed (F2) from wild stock (grandchildren of wild stock). This was particularly unfair to South African exporters because their national regulatory body had not previously required the import records necessary for such a showing.
In addition, the permitting process has been agonizingly slow. Nearly two years after implementation, only 81 South African aviaries have obtained export permits. Aviaries have shed employees and filed for bankruptcy, unable to feed their stock. The unavailability of export has meant a local market glut. The local price for an aviary bird has plummeted to approximately $100/parrot. Aviaries’ inability to survive on just the local market has endangered the health of thousands of greys as the quality of food supply erodes from pinched pennies.
It appears an animal rights’ bias against pet market suppliers prevailed in gaining the up-listing. Doubtless, well-intentioned pet owners naively and trustingly signed the Wildlife Conservation Society’s online petition. As our Editorial indicates, petitions ostensibly offer a risk-free opportunity to do good. Yet they too have contributed to the current perverse incentive structure for wild-capture.
The Dodo article includes photos and video footage from a WCS parrot rehabilitation facility in the DRC subsequent to the up-listing, when poaching incentives reached their height. The images haunt with the damage wrought on these amazing creatures. We applaud Wildlife Conservation Society‘s (WCS) and other similar organizations’ rehabilitation efforts, but note that had the petition accurately accounted for the legitimate role of aviaries in supplying domestic markets, the need for such intervention never would have been so great. Likely, the naively trusting public would not have signed petitions designed to put legitimate suppliers out of business and increase black-market incentives. The need for the valuable work of these organizations continues, by virtue of their hand in creating the current desperate situation.
For video of the rehabilitation work done at WCS’s Bronx Zoo Rehabilitation facility in DRC, click here.
* This is disputed, in large part, it would seem due to the inherent imperfection of the trade statistics on which it is based.
Rising from the Ashes – Wildfires, Birds, and Their Habitat
The 2018 fire season’s explosive Carr and Mendocino Complex (California) conflagrationss – among many others – illustrate the damage wildfires do to human infrastructure as well as fire’s effects on birds, other animals, and their habitat. This article is third in a natural-disaster series that’s already looked at the effects on birds from earthquakes and from volcanic eruptions.
Both short- and long-term effects must be considered. In the short term, somewhat surprisingly, studies show that immediate avian mortality in wildfires is normally low. Stills and video of this season’s fires make it hard to imagine any possibility of escape, but birds can outfly even these flames.
When significant mortality occurs, it’s almost always due to smoke inhalation in thick smoke that obscures vision and renders escape more problematic. Birds’ airways are damaged by smoke in the same ways humans’ are; severe or prolonged exposure can cause death, and birds who recover from lesser exposures can still end up with chronic breathing problems.
Nonetheless, most birds survive the immediate fire. But when a fire burns 350,000 acres (nearly 1,000 square miles!) in a matter of days, as the Mendocino Complex fire has done, what becomes of the habitat and the birds that relied on it for food and shelter?
Here we discover an interesting difference between the effects of massive eruptions and huge wildfires. Such eruptions create a central “kill radius” inside which essentially nothing survives. Even intense wildfires, by contrast, “hopscotch” and leave numerous untouched pockets of vegetation where recolonization can begin almost immediately.
Even the burned out sections can support returning bird life relatively early on. Again unlike eruptions with their all-devouring surges of incandescent ash, wildfires leave behind partially carbonized branches and trunks. Those rapidly become both food source and ”condo complex” for wood-boring beetles and their larvae. These delectable grubs attract woodpeckers in particular. The new clearings created in the burned-over areas become swarming grounds for all sorts of aerial bugs – and feeding grounds for flycatchers, bluebirds and the like. Birds that nest in clearings but feed in the surrounding untouched patches also find new homes with little ado.
Birds themselves play a significant part in the land’s re-greening after wildfires. They eat seed-containing berries and fruits, and in the process of digesting the tasty part, their acidic juices weaken the seed coats and facilitate easier germination. The birds fly hither and thither, excreting as they go, thereby assuring a wide distribution of now-ready-to-sprout seeds complete with a starting dose of guano fertilizer.
Another aspect of wildfires is their natural place in the ecosystem. We now understand how fire plays a key part in germination of seeds in species such as lodgepole pines, jack pines, banksia and eucalyptus. In some species heat is necessary to melt the resinous coating surrounding their seeds; in others, remarkably, chemical “indicators” in the smoke itself will trigger the seeds’ germination process. This allows repopulation by the original flora. The endangered Kirtland’s warbler, as one example, benefits from this cycle: It feeds only on young jack pines that sprout from the ashes of their parent trees.
Until recent years forest managers didn’t recognize the importance of regular, smaller fires that thin the undergrowth and burn accumulating deadwood. Our Forest Service worked hard for decades to suppress any and all fires; the result has been fewer, but more intense and damaging blazes that destroy these seeds rather than triggering germination. And on the front doorstep of climate change, even the “fewer” term in that equation is now called into question.
Proper forest management is a key to restoring and preserving the equilibrium that we ourselves tipped into imbalance. In doing this, we also help to assure the longer-term stability of that ecosystem as well as its bird and other animal populations.
Prairies too, like temperate and boreal forests, rely on fire to consume weeds, shrubs and dry brush, allowing native prairie flora more “elbowroom” and access to light. Birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the horned lark thrive on recently-burned prairie.
Fire in a tropical forest is a different matter. The soil in most such forests is relatively thin and rainfall tends to be high. Exposing this soil to the elements as the result of fire often causes it to wash away and erode, or in other cases “laterize” (turn quickly to hardpan). In either case the forest will regenerate poorly, the habitat will be sparse and food will be scarce. Too many of these fires are started by humans eager to clear land for grazing or agriculture and failing to recognize the irreversible damage they’re setting in motion. To boot, the same natural processes quickly render the newly cleared land unsuitable for man’s intended use.
Many species of tropical-forest-dwelling birds have already had their numbers depleted by loss of habitat and, in species such as psittacines popular with bird fanciers, by excessive wild harvesting (or outright poaching, in many cases). An ever-diminishing range exerts severe pressure on populations. The additional insult of a tropical forest fire and its aftermath can force such species to the brink of extinction.
A discussion of birds and wildfires would be remiss not to mention the issue of whether several Australian raptor species (locally and colloquially called “firehawk raptors”) actually take advantage of fires deliberately to secure prey. The black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and brown falcon (Falco berigora) have all been fingered as suspected arsonists.
No, they don’t rub branches together or strike steel to flint. They accomplish this by congregating at an existing fire, seizing burning branches in their beaks, carrying them for up to a kilometer and dropping them into unburned areas to spread the flames. The resulting blaze drives rodents and other prey ahead of it, allowing the waiting raptors to pick them off easily.
This behavior has been observed in flocks of more than a hundred, and researchers believe the birds’ strategy is intentional and directed. “It’s not gratuitous,” Australian ethnobiologist and ornithologist Bob Gosford says. “There’s a purpose. There’s an intent to say, okay, there are several hundred of us there, we can all get a meal.”
But though Aboriginal oral history abounds with tales of these firebirds, and more than a dozen modern-day sightings of this behavior are recorded, skeptics still point to a lack of photographic evidence. And even were such evidence forthcoming, the question of intentionality will continue to be debated hotly.
To sum up, birds affected by wildfires will suffer significant short-term disruption typically followed by recolonization, quickly in some areas and more slowly in others. The existing equilibrium is knocked off balance and “oscillates” for a time, with old species declining or being supplanted by new immigrants, followed by a gradual return to near steady state.
Birds themselves play a part in the regrowth of burned areas by bringing insect infestation under control and by spreading seeds already encased in natural “fertilizer”.
And there are those controversial accounts of a handful of Promethean raptor species snatching up blazing brands and firebombing the outback — using fire as a tool to roust prey and drive it towards their drooling beaks.
While individual species may not fare well in some instances, birds overall continue to demonstrate their resilience to wildfires much as they do to other large-scale natural events that humans call “catastrophes”. Indeed, some may even make good advantage of them.
Modern Falconry: Cultural Heritage caught in Geopolitics
Falconry, an ancient cultural heritage arising around 2,000 BC in Mongolia or Central Asia, is alive and well in the Mideast. In fact, mid Eastern nations predominate in the United Nations listing of Falconry as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Mid Eastern falconry made BBC news reports today as more evidence from a 2015 terrorist kidnapping incident came to light. In 2015, a group of 28 Qatari citizens, Royal family members among them, traveled with their falcons to southern Iraq, where, reportedly, favorite prey of the Sakara falcon — the Houbara bustard– then abounded.
Alarmingly, terrorists invaded the Qatari camp and held the group hostage eighteen months, allegedly until ransom was paid.
Sheikh Muhammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, newly appointed foreign minister, received a list of hostages taken and immediately recognized the names of two Royal family relatives. It fell to the new Qatari emissary to Iraq, Zayed al-Kayareen to handle the tense negotiations.
Meanwhile, the kidnappers stowed the Royal family members in a windowless prison cell, providing minimal sustenance. When the men emerged some sixteen months later, they had lost approximately 50% of their body weight.
Variously identified as ISIS, and Hezbollah, ultimately the kidnappers appear to have demanded payment to Kataib Hezbollah (a shiite group supported by Iran). The ransom demands varied over time. Allegedly $1 billion was demanded and paid, yet whether the money remains in the coffers of Iraq’s Central Bank or did in fact make its way to Kataib Hezbollah remains unclear.
What is clear is that neighboring states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt had previously blockaded Qatar precisely on suspicion the country provided funding to terrorists. And if ransom was delivered by Qatari jet illegally over neighboring airspace, more than falcon feathers are ruffled.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Volcanic Eruptions’ Effects
on Bird Populations
Volcanic eruptions predate life on earth, and volcanic eruptions can harm or kill wildlife locally and sometimes even globally. Yet life evolved, and has persisted despite such catastrophes.
Birds are affected as other animals are: by the explosions themselves, the pyroclastic flows that follow them, the suffocating ash and gases, the loss of food sources and habitat to lava flows and ashfall, the disruption of usual migratory routes. In extreme cases, volcanic cataclysms can threaten species worldwide when ash is ejected high into the stratosphere, where it circles the earth and blocks sunlight, causing “years without a summer” and perilous crop failures.
Yet birds may enjoy advantages that other animals may not share. In particular, except for flightless birds, their superior mobility in three dimensions may enable them to escape more quickly, find more secure refuge, and eventually resettle their old nesting or feeding grounds before other animals when food and shelter return.
The ongoing eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii recently entered a new phase that threatens bird life in a broad swath of the “Big Island” of Hawaii’s Puna district. Before diving into today’s headlines, let’s first look at several historic eruptions for which the effects on birds have been studied and documented.
Jehol Biota fossils: Massive volcanic eruptions 125 million years ago in what is now Liaonang, China created white-hot pyroclastic (pulverized molten rock) surges that snuffed all life in their path. Numerous fossils, remarkably similar to fossilized remains from Pompeii, resulted. Among these are many different species of birds, caught “frozen” at the moment of death by superheated clouds of ash that preserved them where and how they fell.
Vesuvius: One of history’s most famous eruptions in 79 CE buried Pompeii and Herculaneum under meters of burning ash and wiped out all life on the upper slopes of the mountain. This eruption caught up domestic birds as well; archaeologists have unearthed not just fossils, but cages, perches, coops and cotes both inside and adjacent to dwellings. Today Vesuvius is a national park, teeming with wildlife including over 100 species of birds — resident, migrant, wintering and breeding types all being well represented.
Mt. St. Helens: The most violent continental US eruption in historic times occurred in 1980. All birds in the 230-square-mile blast / debris avalanche zone died. Many escaped the mudflows and ashfall that created a lunar surface across many more square miles. Nevertheless, birds were flying back into the blast area within days. Old habitats had been destroyed, but new ones had been created that could provide homes for bird species different than those that had predominated. The forest birds were gone, but ground-dwellers found niches in which to nest, and within a few short seasons the land was revegetating. As these new habitats grew increasingly complex, they were colonized by a strikingly diverse array of bird species.
Soufriere: A series of Pelean eruptions caused widespread devastation on the Lesser Antilles island of Montserrat between 1995 and 2010. Following each of these explosive eruptions, all forest avian populations declined but rebounded rapidly over the subsequent two to three years. No species were extirpated; all have recovered to their pre-eruption numbers and several ground-foraging species are considerably more abundant. A number of these species are designated “range-restricted species”, endangered due to decreasing habitat, but none of these have experienced population declines.
And lastly Kilauea, Hawaii: Its current eruption began in 1983 (the author was hiking on Kilauea that day) and has persisted almost without pause since then. Its first two years were characterized by periodic high fountaining and short lava flows. The effects were felt only in a small radius of perhaps a mile. Then prolific lava flows began to be produced, and this has continued through today. Several communities and many tens of square miles of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were covered by these flows over the years. Most of this land was already barren, old lava flows with scant vegetation, occupied only by a few Hawaiian owls and traversed by foraging birds.
In 2008 a lava lake formed at the summit of Kilauea and persisted until three months ago. It emitted thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other noxious gases daily, and these gases mixed with water droplets in the air to create “vog” (volcanic smog). Fortunately the land downwind is barren, but wind shifts periodically affected breeding colonies of nēnē (native Hawaiian geese, an endangered species being cared for in the Park). Aggressive human intervention prevented significant harm to these colonies.
In mid-May new vents opened in populated and forested land near the coast far from the summit. These vents have been spewing lava and large quantities of gases continuously ever since. Lava claimed more than 600 homes in a single searing night and has gobbled up thirteen square miles of tropical green. Lava is entering the ocean on a four-mile-wide front and has created a square mile of new land. Sulfur dioxide has killed or seriously damaged many additional square miles of forest and crops. In the meantime the summit crater has commenced a slow collapse, interspersed every couple of days with large steam and ash explosions when rockfalls block the crater throat and bottle up the pressure until it “pops”.
This new eruptive phase has therefore caused significant loss of local avian habitat, sparing neither land, air nor water birds. Despite little evidence of outright eruption-caused mortality, bird populations have largely fled the affected areas when given that option. Newly lava-inundated land will offer scanty habitat for decades to come.
One particular area has fared especially poorly. The Malama Ki Forest Reserve, a little downslope from the eruption, was invaded by — and partway covered with — lava. The Malama Ki reserve had been set aside as one of the last native habitats of several species of Hawaiian birds, above all the ‘io – Hawaii’s only native raptor, listed for many years as an endangered species. ‘Io will nest only in the specific type of forest found in the reserve, but nearly half of this reserve is now yards deep in hardened lava, scattered with ash-white trunks of incinerated hundred-foot trees.
The eruption’s environmental degradation jeopardizes the continuing survival of a unique ‘io sub-population notwithstanding its unusually high resistance to many avian diseases, which makes this threatened diminution of biodiversity tragic. According to Dept. of Land & Natural Resources Hawaii island manager Steve Bergfeld, these birds “may no longer persist, may rapidly decline, or become further fragmented and/or contract in range.” The jury remains out on the fate of these scarce ‘io.
Most volcanic eruptions that cause a large loss of animal life are of the explosively short-lived type: Vesuvius, Tambora, Krakatoa, Pelée, St. Helens, Soufriere, and Pinatubo, for example. Kilauea’s eruption is now 35 years old, having largely maintained a nonexplosive steady-state, thus offering insight into both short- and long-term effects on various avian populations.
Fossil and historical records show the first type of eruption causes immediate and severe harm to bird populations, but also that birds resettle opportunistically once sustainable habitat becomes available. The overall population rebounds, but some species may not return and new ones may populate entirely new types of habitat.
Hawaii presents a different challenge with its threatened native bird species and recent change in eruptive behavior. Kilauea’s long, less violent eruption has had more subtle effects and fewer acute crises (until now) allowing us sufficient time to mitigate its impact on Hawaiian birds, particularly endangered species. It is to be hoped that Tutu Pele – loved, respected and feared Hawaiian volcano goddess — will now take pity on her remaining hawk and duck populations and spare them any further in-person visits.
INFORMATIONAL LINKS IN THE ORDER DISCUSSED:
Jehol Biota (regional species extinction): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/pompeii-animals-shows-dinosaurs-mammals-and-early-birds-death-throes-180949580/
Vesuvius (all local species): http://www.vesuvioinrete.it/e_parco.htm
Mt. St. Helens (all local species): https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/mtsthelens/faq/q5.shtml
Soufriere (all local species): https://www.fs.fed.us/global/iitf/pubs/ja_iitf_2007_dalsgaard001.pdf
Malama Ki Forest Reserve (‘io, nene): http://www.staradvertiser.com/2018/06/05/hawaii-news/kilauea-eruption-harms-up-to-half-of-punas-malama-ki-forest-reserve/
EFFECTS ON BIRDS, OTHER ERUPTIONS:
Deception Island (penguins): https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14914
Kasatochi (auklets): https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180425131815.htm
Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic birds; all Africa <–> Europe migratory species):
NATIVE HAWAIIAN BIRDS OF VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK:
… AND JUST FOR KICKS
(for anyone who’s amused when somebody flips the script totally)