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Published: Sunday, 3/28/2010

Add bullbats to hit list

A young nighthawk with its mother pauses during its day spent on the grounds of St. Charles Church in South Toledo. A young nighthawk with its mother pauses during its day spent on the grounds of St. Charles Church in South Toledo.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

Alas the poor bullbat - the common nighthawk by another name. It has made the hit-list of climate change, according to a recently released federal report, The State of the Birds.

Urban dwellers may not realize it, but they probably know nighthawks. They are those swift, highly maneuverable birds that carve arcs around streetlights and athletic field floodlights on summer evenings, feeding on mosquitoes and other insects.

Their unusual attributes include an erratic, batlike flight pattern - hence the southern nickname bullbats. As they dive and swoop you can hear their nasally calls, a loud "peent!" It is similar to the spring breeding call of a male woodcock courting a female.

The nighthawk is among several common species - also including the American oystercatcher and northern pintail - that are likely to become species of conservation concern as a result of climate change. This according to the 2010 State of the Birds, released of late by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Climate change threatens to further imperil hundreds of species of migratory birds, already under stress from habitat loss, invasive species and other environmental threats, the report states. This follows on the heels of a comprehensive report a year ago showing that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline.

"For well over a century, migratory birds have faced stresses such as commercial hunting, loss of forests, the use of DDT and other pesticides, a loss of wetlands and other key habitat, the introduction of invasive species, and other impacts of human development," Salazar said. "Now they are facing a new threat - climate change - that could dramatically alter their habitat and food supply and push many species toward extinction."

The report was the product of a collaborative effort as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative. It involved federal and state wildlife agencies, and scientific and conservation organizations. It argues that climate changes will have an increasingly disruptive effect on bird species in all habitats, with all 67 species of oceanic birds and Hawaiian birds in greatest peril.

Predictably, Salazar cited the planned opening of eight new regional Climate Science Centers to address climate change. The centers are to research climate-change impacts, work with land, natural, and cultural resource managers to design adaptation strategies, and educate the public.

"Just as they did in 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, our migratory birds are sending us a message about the health of our planet," Salazar said.

For bird species that are already of conservation concern, such as the golden-cheeked warbler, whooping crane, and spectacled eider, the added vulnerability to climate change may hasten declines or prevent recovery.

Leaders of the cooperating organizations in the report lined up with supporting statements, including this representative comment by Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

"Birds are excellent indicators of the health of our environment, and right now they are telling us an important story about climate change. Many species of conservation concern will face heightened threats, giving us an increased sense of urgency to protect and conserve vital bird habitat."

The report indicates the way lands are managed can mitigate climate change and help birds adapt to changing conditions.

For example, conserving carbon-rich forests and wetlands, and creating incentives to avoid deforestation can reduce emissions and provide invaluable wildlife habitat.

Commentary: Well, what to make of this state of the birds?

It is at least another serious reminder of the inconvenient truth about accelerated climate change. Note the added word "accelerated."

The overwhelming consensus of climate scientists around the globe says that because of manmade air pollution, we have stepped on the gas for climate change.

On one hand, the climate is always changing. A geologist can rightly argue that global warming has been under way for what, 13,000 years or so, since the end of the last ice age. The problem that arises today is that many of the warmest years on record have occurred very recently, and that trend continues.

The question is, can humankind, highly adaptable and clever toolmakers though we may be, accommodate accelerated warming in time to avoid a calamity? That is seriously problematic, inasmuch as we live in a global community that cannot even agree on lunch. We cannot even do that here in these United States, let alone bicker about everything else.

It is amusing to hear the haw-haws of the naysayers - as in, "Hey Al Gore, it snowed 12 inches of your global warming on my yard last night." Haw haw. Such folks don't know the difference between climate and weather. In fact the whipsaw weather extremes we are witnessing dovetail well with the predicted behavior in rapid climate-change models.

Gore, of course, did nothing for his cause in "An Inconvenient Truth" by selectively hyping the worst-cases climate-change scenarios. And he didn't help himself by being tooled around to his various podiums in gas-hog limos. Not to mention his baronial 20-room-and-pool suburban Nashville manse, which uses as much energy as 20 normal homes. Same goes for the celebrity environmentalists who had jet-setted to Copenhagen to parade their high-profile egos at a great waste of fuel and an unhealthy contribution to upper-atmospheric pollution from their private aircraft.

Such examples make it hard to swallow their advice to screw in energy-saving light bulbs and nail up some weather-stripping. But such conservation is a good thing; we all should do it. But example is everything, and phony example is more than inconvenient. It is counter-productive.

In the end, it is all about us. The Earth doesn't care whether we keep or not. It will keep on spinning. Climate has been far colder, and far hotter, during this planet's history than our range of adapability can withstand. We arose, along with the plants and animals we live with, during a fortuitous bubble in the wild ride of the planet's climate cycles. We don't know when that bubble will burst, but it makes no sense to hurry the date. We need all the time we can get.

Personally, I hope the haunting "peent" of the nighthawk fills my summer nights as long as I have ears. And I hope my children and grandchildren will revel in it too. I hope that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring of 1962 doesn't become the Silent Summer of 2062.

Contact Steve Pollick at:

spollick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6068.



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