In a Tumultuous Year, Science and Steadfast Action Provide a Path Forward

Our fall issue spotlights researchers and conservationists doing what it takes, in the face of overwhelming odds, to keep people and birds safe.

As Audubon’s Fall 2020 issue went to press, wildfires raged across California—new ones igniting even as firefighters raced to contain others. Some 1.5 million acres had already burned, and the toll on communities ablaze while grappling with COVID-19 was incalculable.

Wildlife, too, faced consequences unknown. Biologists had just finished surveying the California population of federally threatened Marbled Murrelets when lightning touched off fires near Santa Cruz—fires that then tore through the old-growth forest where the seabirds fly to lay a single egg each spring. Whether enough tree canopy will be spared, or whether it will recover in time, to support the vulnerable birds next breeding season is an open question.

That’s also the question at the heart of this issue’s cover story. Scientists in Australia have been doggedly working to save the Regent Honeyeater, whose habitat—like that of the murrelet—has been steadily lost, forcing the bird to rely on remnants of woodland. As Paul Bogard writes, the honeyeater escaped the country’s record-setting conflagrations last year, but with climate change driving ever-more-destructive fire seasons, conservationists enter this one holding their breath once again.

In another deeply reported feature story, Carrie Arnold explores the specter of a different kind of crisis with which we are now deeply familiar. Each May, scientists return to the Jersey Shore to sample migratory birds for avian-borne flu viruses, in hopes of identifying any capable of triggering the next pandemic. When it comes to infectious disease risks, here, too, human development and climate change conspire to increase the chance of disaster.

So what is the antidote? Well, certainly land set aside as a safe haven—a place that offer birds ample space to nest and refuel and people a place to seek solace in nature—grows all the more crucial as we pursue solutions to entrenched problems. That’s the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and as our investigation shows, staff are facing growing challenges to fulfill it.

In these stories, people act in the face of overwhelming odds, taking steps to tilt those toward human and avian health—perhaps none more so than in John Moir's profile of pathbreaking biologist Jan Hamber. Jan had faith in the condor, science, and, ultimately, herself. And in the end, they all won out.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue as “Under Pressure.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.