The past year and a half has been challenging for all of us. The COVID-19 Delta variant and a sequence of extreme weather events intensified by climate change turned what was supposed to be a summer of vaccine-fueled celebration into something else entirely. It was a particularly tough season for birds and bird-lovers, as a mysterious epidemic sickened songbirds across the East and hundreds of chicks jumped from their nests during the Pacific Northwest’s record-breaking heatwave. The parade of bleak headlines marches on.
Even so, birds and the people working to protect them have given us plenty to celebrate lately. (That unidentified avian disease, for one thing, seems to have disappeared, and some state agencies have eased restrictions on feeding birds.) It’s important to pause now and again to bask in good news where you can find it. Here are some conservation success stories from the past few months that lifted our spirits.
Piping Plovers had a big summer.
Not so long ago, Piping Plovers had all but disappeared from the Great Lakes region, and their numbers were in significant decline in the Northern Great Plains and along the Atlantic Coast. But thanks to protections since 1985 under the Endangered Species Act and a concerted effort from conservation groups across the country, things are looking up for these adorable little beach-dwellers.
This spring, a pair of Piping Plovers nested in Ohio for the first time in 83 years. Named Nish and Nellie, the couple raised a quartet of chicks in Maumee Bay State Park on the shores of Lake Erie. Nish, the male, is the product of another success story. His parents, Monty and Rose, made history two years ago as the first Piping Plovers to nest in Chicago since the 1950s. Their love story is even immortalized in two documentaries, the latest of which premiered last week.
In total, 124 wild Piping Plover chicks fledged in the Great Lakes region this year, the most since 2018. And there were more than 900 plover nests in New England, blowing past the government’s recovery goal of 625.
A major river restoration project in Florida is complete.
On July 29 a group of wildlife officials, water managers, and members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used nine pairs of comically large scissors to cut a ribbon, signaling the completion of Florida’s Kissimmee River Restoration Project. Nearly 30 years in the making, the effort mended more than 40 miles of river habitat and rehydrated 25,000 acres of wetland that feed into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. “It really speaks to the persistence of these dedicated environmental advocates over the past several decades,” says Kelly Cox, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Army Corps straightened the river’s natural bends and drained the surrounding marsh to control flooding and make way for development. However, ecologists and engineers noticed disastrous environmental impacts almost as soon as they completed construction: 70 percent of nesting Bald Eagles vanished from the area, and waterfowl all but disappeared. After years of lobbying from conservation groups, including Audubon, Congress greenlit the restoration effort in 1992, and the hard work of repairing the Kissimmee’s curves officially began in 1999.
Now, Cox says, eagles, ibises, and other birds are returning to the river. “The diversity of birds that have come back already has been really, really significant,” she says. More than 150 avian species have been spotted in the newly restored wetlands, and Cox suspects that is just the beginning. “We’re going to continue to see the ecological returns for decades.”
Albatrosses are thriving on Bird Island.
The Wandering Albatross is an extraordinary bird, both in terms of endurance—it can fly 10,000 miles nonstop—and beauty. Unfortunately its numbers have dropped by around 4 percent per year since the mid-1990s, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Much of this decline can be attributed to longline fishing practices, which unintentionally hook and drown albatrosses and other seabirds. These preventable deaths are tragic in their own right, but when they happen in nesting season they can also indirectly cause the starvation of albatross chicks, since the drowned adult can’t bring home fish to feed them.
Enter the Albatross Task Force (ATF), a multinational collaboration that aims to protect these birds by changing international fishing strategies. Launched in 2005 by BirdLife International, the program works with fisheries to implement bird-safe practices, like attaching brightly colored “scarecrow” streamers to the backs of boats. The ATF also works to educate fishers about albatrosses and the threats they face. “One of the most compelling bits of advocacy we’ve had to do is with the crews themselves, showing them pictures from the nesting colonies,” says Rory Crawford, a program manager with ATF.
That personal connection seems to be working. Ten years ago, Wandering Albatross breeding success hovered around 72 percent on South Georgia’s Bird Island, a major nesting site in the South Atlantic. This year, as of August 1, 96 percent of Wandering Albatross chicks on Bird Island have survived.
Illinois passes a bird-safe building bill.
Birds and windows do not mix. Up to 1 billion birds die from window collisions each year in North America, especially during migration, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The reason is straightforward: “Birds aren’t really able to identify glass,” says Kristin Murphy, a government affairs coordinator at Audubon Great Lakes. As a result, hundreds of species mistake windows for a continuation of the natural landscape.
But a new Illinois law aims to lower those casualties. In July Governor J. B. Pritzker signed the Bird Safe Buildings Act, which requires all new (or newly renovated) state-owned buildings to incorporate bird-conscious design. Some of those measures include installing specially etched or UV-patterned glass to make windows more visible to birds, and reducing nighttime light pollution during migration. Simple adjustments like these can reduce bird collisions by as much as 90 percent. A recent study concluded that darkening half of lighted windows at one large Chicago building during spring and fall migration could cut bird deaths there by 60 percent.
For Murphy, who helped to get the legislation introduced, it represents a big conservation win that could have ripple effects across the country. Minnesota and several cities, including New York and Oakland, have adopted bird-safe building policies, and Congress is considering a similar bill. “Passing the federal legislation is a really big priority,” she says. “Hopefully, this gets the ball rolling on more change.”
Kiwi return to their natural range.
In once-silent portions of New Zealand, North Island Brown Kiwi are calling again.
Kiwi numbers have been slowly declining for centuries, ever since humans introduced terrestrial mammals such as rats, stoats, and cats to New Zealand. (Bats are its only native mammals.) “Our conservation is really based a lot around pest control,” says Ngaire Sullivan, an ecologist and coordinator with a grassroots network called Kiwi Coast. The group has removed nearly 500,000 invasive mammals over an eight-year span.
Until predators can be eradicated completely, one of the best ways to keep them away from North Island Brown Kiwi is by installing pest-proof fences. Unfortunately, these fences also keep kiwi populations from breeding with each other. So Kiwi Coast engineered a solution: kiwi corridors. These fenced paths link the enclosed safe zones and allow the birds to roam their natural range protected.
Since North Island Brown Kiwi are nocturnal, they are easier heard than seen. Kiwi Coast evaluates their progress by conducting an annual census by ear, as well as an electronically recorded “Kiwi Listening Blitz” every five years. This year’s blitz was an overwhelming success. Fifty percent of the sites that had been silent in 2016 are now filled with kiwi calls. “We were delighted,” says Sullivan, “That’s a much quicker change than we expected.”
Golden-winged Warblers gain habitat and allies.
Golden-winged Warblers are like tiny jewels: bright, rare, and worth saving. When the birds return from Central and South America to breed each year along the Appalachian Mountains and into Southern Canada, they seek out a very specific type of habitat. “A Golden-winged Warbler really needs a lot of early successional habitat adjacent to mature forest,” says Dakota Wagner, Southeast regional coordinator for the Forest Stewards Guild, a national nonprofit. That habitat has become harder to find, however, and as a result the warbler’s population has declined by two-thirds since the 1960s.
But recent developments will help foster recovery for such habitat in North Carolina. In April Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, a North Carolina resident, donated 7,500 acres in the Roan Highlands to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The group will protect and manage the biodiverse, high-elevation land—a once and potentially future hotspot for Golden-winged Warblers—in perpetuity.
Audubon North Carolina works closely with the conservancy, using bird-science expertise to help the group restore and manage its lands for the warblers and other species. One key way to provide good warbler nesting habitat is by selectively and sustainably cutting down trees. So in August the Forest Stewards Guild and the Golden-Winged Warbler Working Group—a partnership between government agencies and conservation groups, including Audubon—hosted a workshop in North Carolina for local landowners and Guild members from across the country to promote warbler conservation and sustainable forestry. In North Carolina 85 percent of forest is privately owned, so these types of alliances are crucial for ensuring the future of the species, says Aimee Tomcho, a conservation biologist with Audubon North Carolina. “I think there’s a lot of power in working across lines,” Tomcho says. “We’re getting the word out.”
A team effort came through for Tricolored Blackbirds.
When it comes to the conservation of Tricolored Blackbirds, every colony counts. Although they closely resemble common and widespread Red-winged Blackbirds, Tricoloreds are rare and restricted. Most of the population lives in California’s Central Valley, where they form massive breeding colonies, each one comprising tens of thousands of birds and representing a significant portion of the species.
With the vast majority of their historical wetland habitat lost, those colonies now congregate on the next best thing: agricultural fields. Trouble is, their nesting season coincides with the period when dairy farmers typically harvest crops to feed their cows. The colonies are hard to find. Since Tricolored Blackbirds tend to move around from year to year, preventing harm at harvest time requires searching and monitoring by experts familiar with the birds.
Since 2014 Audubon California has led a collaborative effort with farmers to help Tricolored Blackbirds and successful farming coexist. Audubon keeps track of colonies, and agricultural partners notify farmers when birds gather on their property, offering them financial compensation for crop loss or damage if they delay harvest until the season’s young blackbirds have fledged.
This year the program was a smashing success: The group effort protected all 13 Tricolored colonies in the San Joaquin Valley, a total of 170,000 birds. That follows another perfect season in 2020 and a run of good years.
A statewide survey of the species, usually conducted every three years, had to be canceled last year due to the pandemic. But Xerónimo Castañeda, who manages the program for Audubon California, says the 2017 survey suggested the population trend had flattened out after plunging in recent years. He’s hopeful that the next survey will show Tricolored Blackbirds beginning to rebound. “It seems like the program has slowed down the significant decline of the species, which is great,” he says. “We’ve been pretty successful in protecting 100 percent or very close to it in the last several years.”