May 18, 2017

Seattle: A Sanctuary City for the Birds

In an increasingly urbanized planet, we often need to be reminded that nature is right in our backyards. With that in mind, I invite you to this weekend’s event: all you have to do is get out of bed 20 minutes before sunrise—I know, this already sounds like a deal breaker—to listen to the birds. I promise, you will be pleasantly surprised! At the beginning, all you will hear are the empty doldrums wandering the twilight, but, suddenly, like evolutionary clockwork, the soundscape will explode with the songs and calls of birds. This is the dawn chorus, and it is both a beautiful and complex phenomenon! For example, a specific bird species will usually start chorusing at a specific time. However, what happens when we tinker with some of that clockwork?

Cities of Change: Our Galapagos Islands
For the past 5,000 years, since humans first started settling in cities, development and resource consumption have dramatically altered the natural landscape. As a result, the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of many wildlife plants and animals have been unintentionally shifted, and this is certainly the case for birds! Now, imagine a city—think Downtown Seattle—as a giant filter for biodiversity. Cities, which are generally composed of inorganic shapes and structures, impervious surfaces, and sparse plant life, are very much unlivable for many native bird species. This is because these birds have a specialized and limited set of tools, shaped by millions of years of evolution for handling predictable scenarios in their natural environments. If for some reason the natural environment drastically changes, these specialized birds, in more cases than none, decline in number or go locally extinct. On the other side of the spectrum, cities are home to a number of species that have found a way to exploit human development, to such a degree that they can now be found in almost any city throughout the world! In the US, these invasive species include the Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow. These kinds of birds are not only aggressive and heavily outcompete many of our native species but they also have a huge economic impact, costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost agricultural product and control alone!
However, moving from the urban core and into the residential areas and suburban neighborhoods, the greater number of habitats and resources here can be amazingly accommodating for a diverse range of bird species. In these greenspaces, birds have a better chance of adapting and surviving in the face of human disturbance. Some of us provide backyard birds with adequate native gardens, feeders, and homes. For example, for a few weeks during late August and early September, the west coast serves as an important rest stop for hundreds of thousands of Vaux’s swifts migrating down to Central America and Venezuela. Previously, these birds were solely dependent on old-growth snags as nighttime roosting sites, but things have begun to shift towards the chimneys dotting our urban landscapes. The two most highly populated local roosting sites are the Frank Wagner (Monroe, WA) and Chapman (Portland, OR) elementary schools. As sunset approaches, people gather by the hundreds with lawn chairs, musical instruments, and picnic baskets to witness nature’s final performance of the day. And almost on the dot of sunset, the Vaux’s Swifts begin forming large funnels above the schools en masse, garnering many oohs and aahs. But it is when the birds begin pouring into the chimney that people really start going crazy, and when that final swift has entered, the audience gives a well-deserved applause (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxUli_C00_c). Indeed, people have a strong urge to connect with nature, and it is much more readily accessible than they think!
Just as Darwin first primed the concept of natural selection with his Galapagos Island finches a little over 180 years ago, our modern-day cities are like expanding islands amidst a rapidly shrinking ocean of natural habitat. In North America, about 82% of the human population is currently living in urban areas. To scientists and citizens alike, the coming years will be of drastic environmental change, and it is in our hands of whether this change will be a negative or positive one.

A Proud Moment for Seattle Conservation
Friday’s pre-ceremony activity was a morning bird walk led by the Seattle Audubon. I have attended my own fair share of bird walks, but today was certainly a special one. It was not solely focused on counting off species or sharing tidbits of natural history—of course, that still happened (http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36697998)—but rather it was about celebrating the beauty of urban biodiversity. Even the most experienced of birders seemingly carried a new spring to their step. Maybe they felt the same as I did, that there was this much-needed renewed sense of hope and resilience. It is positive, tangible results like these that bird and conservation nerds like us live (and fly) for!
In the ceremony, representatives of the treaty’s various partner organizations (Seattle Audubon, Seattle Parks and Recreation, Washington DFW, and USFWS) talked about their group’s efforts to conserve birds and their habitats. These individuals also shared their own personal “bird stories.” We are intrinsically shaped into diverse individuals by our unique experiences and the same goes for the more “birdy” kind of experiences—without a doubt, they can carry invaluable meaning! For Jesús Aguirre, the Seattle Parks and Recreation superintendent, the topic of birds was a means to spark conversation with his grandmother, who had a strong interest in canaries. For Linh Thai, a representative from US Congressman Adam Smith’s office, he retold his days as an infantry soldier, noting that nearby birds being flushed out of the canopies would serve as warning signals of incoming enemy troops! For many, a performance of nature songs by pre-schoolers from Magnolia’s Whizz Kids Academy stole the show! Also, Louis Kreemer, a 15-year-old Roosevelt High School student, impressed the crowd with his budding knowledge of bird biology. Fostering the growth of our next generation of environmental stewards is one of the treaty’s main goals, and it surely looks optimistic!
At 12:09 pm, Robin Thornson, the USFWS Regional Director, signed the document that officially designated Seattle as the 28th Urban Bird Treaty City! With the signing of Seattle’s Urban Bird Treaty, the city’s people will have increased and more widespread opportunities to enjoy, appreciate, and protect birds and their habitats. Importantly, a central theme that was emphasized throughout the morning was one of partnerships. The signing of the treaty was possible only through years of hard work, planning, and negotiating between the community and municipal organizations. And it is through the collective and coordinated efforts of these partnerships that will carry the treaty’s commitments out forward; more details here: https://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/pdf/grants/UrbanBird%20reatyV2-2014.pdf. As Robin Thornson explained, “this natural heritage is our national heritage, and it is important.” Birds should be valued not only for their roles as environmental indicators, pollinators, pest controllers, and cornerstones of a complex food web but also as outdoor teachers and ambassadors that bring our communities together.

Posted on May 18, 2017 05:46 by jeffreyleeisanaturalist jeffreyleeisanaturalist | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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