The Wisdom Of Conservation

People often ask me why ornithologists band birds. A complete answer could fill a book, but here’s a start. Long-term banding efforts allow us to understand the distribution and migration of birds and to monitor changes in population sizes. And banding allows us to learn how long birds live.

For example, thanks to banding records we know that ruby-throated hummingbirds can live as long as nine years, chickadees 12 years, blue jays 17 years, red-tailed hawks 28 years, and mourning doves 31 years.

Back in February I reported remarkable news that only a decades long banding effort could produce. In 2002, ornithologist Chandler Robbins found a banded Laysan albatross on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. After reporting the band number to the federal bird-banding lab, Robbins later discovered that he had banded the bird 46 years earlier in1956.

In 2006 a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist returned to Midway and relocated the still banded bird. He removed the old band and replaced it with a red band so it would be easier to spot in the future.

Knowing that albatrosses take seven to eight years to reach reproductive age, this bird was at least 50 years old. To honor the aging albatross, the biologist named her “Wisdom.”

Since 2006, Wisdom has raised at least eight chicks (one egg per year) and as many as 40 in her lifetime. And, amazingly since she was originally banded in 1956, Wisdom has flown more than three million miles.

From July through October, Laysan albatrosses live at sea. With 6.5 ft. wingspans, they fly effortlessly on the wind. Calm days ground them on the water. They rest and sleep on the water. And at night they feed when squid, their favorite food, come to the surface.

The big news is that Wisdom has done it again! In early December biologists found her incubating a single egg. Today Wisdom is at least 66 years old, the oldest known wild bird.

The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds. Pre-1900, however, albatrosses were slaughtered for their feathers to be used in the millinery trade. And non-native mammals such as pigs, dogs, and cats decimated seabird populations because their nests were easy prey for introduced mammals and human hunters.

These conditions motivated Theodore Roosevelt to designate the Northern Hawaiian Islands as one of the first federally protected seabird reserves in the country in 1909. It took some time, but protection worked.

Today Laysan albatrosses arrive on the Midway Atoll in late November by the hundreds of thousands. The total breeding population is estimated to be about one million individuals.

In a related story, another example of species recovery just crossed my desk. When I lived in Oklahoma back in the 1980s, black-capped vireos were disappearing from their nesting grounds in Texas and Oklahoma at an alarming pace. The known population was estimated to be 350 birds.

In 1987, the FWS initiated conservation efforts with Oklahoma, Texas, the U.S Army (Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Sill in Oklahoma), private landowners, and non-governmental conservation organizations. They worked cooperatively to protect and recover vireo populations.

The tools used included educating the public about the vireo’s plight, conservation easements to protect critical habitat, and prescribed burns to create and maintain habitat. The most important tool, however, was managing brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in vireo nests. The vireos raise the cowbirds at the expense of their own young.

Today there are more than 5,200 known black-capped vireos and the total population is estimated to be more than 14,000. As a result, the FWS is now proposing to remove it from the endangered species list.

That an albatross could live more than 66 years was unthinkable in the 1950s. That a songbird that numbered fewer than 400 individuals could recover in less than 40 years is remarkable. In previous columns, I have recounted how Kirkland’s warblers in Michigan and California condors have responded similarly to aggressive conservation measures. Thanks to bird banding, we understand that the best conservation tool is time.

Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com. Visit Scott’s web site www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.By Scott Shalaway

edtiorial@post-journal.com

People often ask me why ornithologists band birds. A complete answer could fill a book, but here’s a start. Long-term banding efforts allow us to understand the distribution and migration of birds and to monitor changes in population sizes. And banding allows us to learn how long birds live.

For example, thanks to banding records we know that ruby-throated hummingbirds can live as long as nine years, chickadees 12 years, blue jays 17 years, red-tailed hawks 28 years, and mourning doves 31 years.

Back in February I reported remarkable news that only a decades long banding effort could produce. In 2002, ornithologist Chandler Robbins found a banded Laysan albatross on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. After reporting the band number to the federal bird-banding lab, Robbins later discovered that he had banded the bird 46 years earlier in1956.

In 2006 a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) biologist returned to Midway and relocated the still banded bird. He removed the old band and replaced it with a red band so it would be easier to spot in the future.

Knowing that albatrosses take seven to eight years to reach reproductive age, this bird was at least 50 years old. To honor the aging albatross, the biologist named her “Wisdom.”

Since 2006, Wisdom has raised at least eight chicks (one egg per year) and as many as 40 in her lifetime. And, amazingly since she was originally banded in 1956, Wisdom has flown more than three million miles.

From July through October, Laysan albatrosses live at sea. With 6.5 ft. wingspans, they fly effortlessly on the wind. Calm days ground them on the water. They rest and sleep on the water. And at night they feed when squid, their favorite food, come to the surface.

The big news is that Wisdom has done it again! In early December biologists found her incubating a single egg. Today Wisdom is at least 66 years old, the oldest known wild bird.

The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds. Pre-1900, however, albatrosses were slaughtered for their feathers to be used in the millinery trade. And non-native mammals such as pigs, dogs, and cats decimated seabird populations because their nests were easy prey for introduced mammals and human hunters.

These conditions motivated Theodore Roosevelt to designate the Northern Hawaiian Islands as one of the first federally protected seabird reserves in the country in 1909. It took some time, but protection worked.

Today Laysan albatrosses arrive on the Midway Atoll in late November by the hundreds of thousands. The total breeding population is estimated to be about one million individuals.

In a related story, another example of species recovery just crossed my desk. When I lived in Oklahoma back in the 1980s, black-capped vireos were disappearing from their nesting grounds in Texas and Oklahoma at an alarming pace. The known population was estimated to be 350 birds.

In 1987, the FWS initiated conservation efforts with Oklahoma, Texas, the U.S Army (Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Sill in Oklahoma), private landowners, and non-governmental conservation organizations. They worked cooperatively to protect and recover vireo populations.

The tools used included educating the public about the vireo’s plight, conservation easements to protect critical habitat, and prescribed burns to create and maintain habitat. The most important tool, however, was managing brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in vireo nests. The vireos raise the cowbirds at the expense of their own young.

Today there are more than 5,200 known black-capped vireos and the total population is estimated to be more than 14,000. As a result, the FWS is now proposing to remove it from the endangered species list.

That an albatross could live more than 66 years was unthinkable in the 1950s. That a songbird that numbered fewer than 400 individuals could recover in less than 40 years is remarkable. In previous columns, I have recounted how Kirkland’s warblers in Michigan and California condors have responded similarly to aggressive conservation measures. Thanks to bird banding, we understand that the best conservation tool is time.

Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com. Visit Scott’s web site www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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