Tuesday, July 31, 2018

This is for the Birds

You do what to those pretty little creatures?! Why?

A bird nest on a banding route. Note the Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows on the wire
By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Over the course of a normal year, 914 species of wild bird occur naturally north of the US/Mexican border. Of these, 426 species reside in Canada. For me and probably many other birders (the uninitiated call us “birdwatchers”), one of the great pleasures of this hobby is that birds lure us out of our homes into the natural world.

Blue Bird eggs...
As my interest in birds grew,a friend acquainted me with the practice of bird banding. I am one of many volunteers who help him band the beautiful Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows that breed in a large swathe of foothills west of Calgary, Alberta. Both species winter in the southern USA and northern Mexico, and migrate to Canada to breed.
...and hatchlings
There were dramatic reductions in the populations of these (and many other species) during the mid-20th Century because of changes in predation, farming and forestry practices, and competition from other species, notably the European Starling. This led to the development of “Bluebird Trails” – volunteer-made nesting boxes placed at intervals along highways and byways to provide relatively safe breeding sites for the Bluebirds. Opportunistic Tree Swallows, which spend their winters even further south in Mexico, soon acquired a liking for these nesting boxes. Volunteers maintain the boxes, keep records of nesting successes, and in many cases also band the birds.
Our efforts are a miniscule part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We attach bands on the baby birds’ legs just before they are about to leave their nest box, or, on an adult if we capture it in the nest. If banded birds are ever recaptured, or if someone finds a band on their legs after they die, the ornithological community gains a better understanding of their migration patterns and changes in their behaviour over a well-defined period of time.
The practice of bird banding is a logical continuation of birdwatching. It reflects the simple reality that people need nature to be happy – and little in nature is lovelier than birds and birdsong in the wild. For the nations of the Americas, they are a shared resource. Tragically, in my view, many millions of songbirds and others are at risk because of recent political developments south of Canada’s border. More on that, later.
Citizen Science
Bird banding is a remarkable example of citizen science. It involves the efforts of large numbers of volunteers to help keep track of the movements of individual birds and their life histories. Banders and their assistants tend to be retired women and men, in roughly equal numbers.
In Canada, twenty-seven primary sites (the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network) track the movement of birds during spring and fall migration, primarily using both observation and banding techniques. Licensed banders and their volunteer assistants are afield before dawn during the migration seasons. They capture birds mainly by erecting fine-meshed \ nets in areas of known bird movement. They sex, age, weigh and measure them, and make general assessments of each bird’s health as they band it.
At many of the primary sites in Canada, birds have been banded for many years. The Long Point Observatory on Lake Erie in Ontario began banding in 1960. On 29th May, 2017, volunteers at that site banded their one millionth bird. These long-term, continuous records are vital to understanding changes in population and species movement in our rapidly changing world. The findings of these studies demonstrate clearly that many migrant species are declining in numbers. They are vulnerable on their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds, and throughout their migration route.
Bird banding involves attaching a small, individually numbered \aluminum or coloured plastic tag to the leg of a wild bird prior to its release. This data is maintained in a central depository, available online. If you find a banded bird, dead or alive, report the band number, date and location to https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/bird-banding/how-to-report.html or, in the US, https://www.fws.gov/birds/surveys-and-data/bird-banding/reporting-banded-birds.php.

Technical Advances
Most birds are migratory, and the North American Migratory Bird Treaty recognizes that the countries through which they travel on these migrations need to protect them.
Signed into law amid the chaos of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916. The 100th anniversary of this event, which the two countries celebrated in Ottawa, was just two years ago. In 1918, the US passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – legislation which protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests,” except as allowed by permit. When Canada updated the Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1994, we kept the legislation consistent with what was, at that time, still US standards.
The result was a far greater understanding of bird migration patterns. For example, in the 1930s, an American researcher established that North American birds migrate within the continent through four predictable corridors. It also became clear that billions of birds migrate from North America’s Arctic tundra and boreal forest, most of which is in Canada. A strengthened scientific consensus led to growing efforts to protect boreal lakes and forests, which constitute our biggest hatchery.
Recent technological developments are helping uncover the mysteries of bird migration, yielding detailed data about the hemispheric-scale movements of migratory birds. Most importantly, these technologies provide information about what we can do to better protect birds, using increasingly sophisticated approaches in keeping with advancing technology. For example, satellite tracking and geolocation technologies now provide detailed accounts of when and where birds move, and the places they stop in between. This reveals areas where habitat protection is critical. Compared to banding, however, geo-tracking is an expensive way to obtain data.
The enormous strides in genetic analysis in recent decades are rapidly changing our understanding of breeding populations. Many species are now being split into subspecies as a result of such data. Some species are being assigned to different families as greater understanding of DNA helps us to understand their evolution.
Perhaps the most important advancement is the recent development of eBird by Cornell University. This program allows citizens, anywhere on earth, to submit bird sightings to a central data base. As it expands and software becomes more sophisticated, many different studies can be made of the size and distribution of bird populations, both historically and in real time. Anyone interested in birds and in helping to ensure the continued survival of these species should use this data (www.ebird.org) and submit their sightings to the database. You can download apps from the site without charge.
For bird banders, a computer program named Bandit is the latest in a series of desktop applications aimed at helping them manage and submit their data for banded birds. Its use makes maintaining banding records much simpler.
Banders use the no-charge software to store data obtained during banding operations. At the end of the season, Canadian banders use it to transfer their data to an Ottawa agency, which shares it with the American agency.
Are Politics now Failing our Birds?
We must never become complacent about the survival of birds. The Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America in the early 19th Century, with a population of perhaps 5 billion birds. From the early 1800s to the 1890s, most of the birds were shot for food or as entertainment. “Martha,” the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
Politics are hardly new to the birding community. Recently, for example, there has been controversy about designating the Canada Jay (also called the Grey Jay) as Canada’s national bird. In the United States, the Bald Eagle’s status as national bird dates back to 1782
The efforts of this continent’s ornithologists, with the help of an army of banders and other enthusiasts, long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats – vast in extent, to survive in our natural world. These habitats range from breeding areas (mainly in Canada), to their wintering ranges, with innumerable habitats in between – especially in and around wetlands. Between them, the Arctic tundra and the boreal forest annually export somewhere between three billion and five billion birds to populate the winter ecosystems of the Americas, from southern Canada and the contiguous American states, into Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Despite the efforts of the birding community, critical nesting grounds have long been at risk, mainly due to increasing development pressures and climate change. These likely unstoppable problems in recent years encountered another threat. This originated with the recent reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by America’s Interior Department. As a result, the US President has signed a decree which, to large degree, guts this policy.
America’s Interior Department issued a legal opinion that reinterpreted the act to exclude “incidental take.” For example, previously the interpretation argued that fear of “unlimited potential for criminal prosecution” strongly encouraged cat owners from letting their pets attack migratory birds. Similarly, drivers who accidentally killed birds with their cars might be charged with crimes. In practice, the act had never been enforced in that way. It was applied to cases of gross negligence where potential harm should have been anticipated and avoided, such as discharging toxic pesticide contaminated water into ponds used by migratory birds.
In her commentary on the recent reinterpretation of the act, Professor Amanda Rodewald – she serves as director of conservation science in Cornell University’s ornithology department –suggested that industry will be the primary beneficiary of this new interpretation. In her view, “This new reading of the law means” that “corporations and others who fill in wetlands will escape liability for actions that could kill millions of birds every year.”
It’s more than enough to make a birder cry.

Author’s note: Thanks to Dave Russum, Bill Taylor and Gus Yaki for their comments on this article. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

Land of Fewer Smiles?

Thailand's late king Bhumipol 

In 2004, my wife and I decided to spend a year in Thailand – a year that slowly turned into four. As we learned, the dominant meme in Thai culture is that, whatever happened, the Thai would smile. This turned out to be true, but over the four-year period we lived there – in the lovely northern city of Chiang Mai – we gradually learned that the Thais have a smile for every known human emotion. The country enjoys the moniker, the “Land of Smiles.”

We created new lives for ourselves there. We took an intensive, six-month course in Thai, and I began teaching at Chiang Mai University, developing a course for foreigners who had come to Thailand to teach English. My course book is still available online and used by many people in many countries. Soon after we arrived, the Boxing Day tsunami killed nearly a quarter million people in 14 countries.

We studied Thai culture and language, and Bernie became involved in charitable organizations – first with local people who had suffered from leprosy; later, with a Dutch charity directed at the country’s desperately poor Hill Tribe people. These people, whose lives were restricted to the tops of mountains, were deprived of the fertile lands in the valleys and often of Thai citizenship. Hundreds of thousands are among our planet’s stateless peoples. 

We travelled a lot. I, for one, became immersed in the country’s history and religion – nominally Buddhist, but with trappings of Hinduism and ancestor worship. There was deep reverence for King Bhumibol. He was the ninth monarch of Thailand from his dynasty, which dates back to 1782. Born in 1927, he was already elderly. I couldn’t imagine how the country would respond when he died.

Each morning we woke up to BBC World News, which kept us informed about the world outside Thailand. But on the morning of September 19, 2006 that changed. Instead of comforting news from the Beeb, we woke up to martial music. As I drove to work that morning, I encountered military vehicles everywhere. Overnight, there had been a coup d’état. I remember saying to Bernie, “It’s time to go back. We’re Canadians. We don’t do coups.” A container ship took our belongings, and we returned home.

The Thais restored democracy for a while, until another general took over in 2014. It was the country’s twelfth coup since becoming a constitutional monarchy 86 years ago.

Fast forward a decade. The King died in 2016, and the country mourned for more than a year. Recently a priest we knew in Chiang Mai – Bernie went to mass at his church – sent a commentary to friends and former parishioners that “many continue to wear black,” or have black ribbons sewn onto their clothing, to honour the year of mourning “for the passing of the well-revered, and genuinely loved, late king.” Although he was not crowned until after the mourning period, the thrice-married (and, when we were there, unpopular) new king’s reign was back-dated to the death of his father.

Then Father David Townsend’s message becomes ominous. “Politically, Thailand remains in the grip of the army generals who removed the last democratically elected government. Groups of more than five persons meeting publicly are banned. Some well-respected scholars who were hosting an international academic gathering here in Chiang Mai University have been arrested,” he said about a country I once loved.

“There is great use of the lèse-majesté law, computer laws and defamation laws, against opponents. Whistle-blowers, social activists, and workers detailing the truth regarding abuse of workers’ rights and such like, even BBC news reporters, can be ensnared by defamation suits.” Dissidents are being “called into army barracks for extended ‘conversations’ to encourage ‘attitude adjustment,’” he said.

The deposed former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, warned that the criminal negligence case against her would make future leaders rethink any policy to help Thailand’s citizens. In court for alleged mismanagement over her government’s rice pledging scheme, she gave a rather confusing defense. “No public policy benefits you financially,” she said. “If you measured public policy only by financial benefits, no government would want to make the decision.” She came from a wealthy family and her brother, Thaksin, served as PM while we were there.

When Thai general Prayuth Chan Ocha staged his coup against her four years ago, it followed six months of street protests against her fairly elected government. After the military took power, they charged her with dereliction of duty.

The charges related to her oversight of a political episode called the “rice pledging scheme.” The idea ran aground in early 2014, after three years of accumulating from the country’s many peasant farmers an inventory of more than 17 million tonnes of rice. This angered the middle class in Bangkok, Southeast Asia’s economic colossus. The bourgeoisie felt taxes were going into “populist” schemes laden with corruption.

Four years after the coup, says the headline in a Singapore-based newspaper, “Thais tire of corruption and democratic delays.” The good news, if there is any, is that popular dissent has begun. For example, a few months ago the people of the northern city of Chiang Mai openly protested the building of a government luxury housing project on forested land outside the city. This was the largest gathering since the junta took control.

The military are also being investigated by the country's anti-graft agency over a suspected misappropriation of some C$512 million from a state fund for the poor. The government, most Thais believe, is wide open to corruption and the haemorrhage of state funds into military hands. The former government minister in charge of a major aspect of the scheme received a 42-year custodial sentence. Prime Minister General Prayuth has said to expect an election in about a year’s time. Presumably activity by approved political parties will be allowed beforehand. Drafted by military minds, the new constitution will no doubt give the armed forces continuing political power.

After reading Father Townsend’s epistle, I got in touch with three friends who had married Thai women and wanted to raise their kids in that country. Two refused to discuss the situation, because living in a country operated by a military with a good intelligence system carries risks. The third – let’s call him Dave – formally responded, but in ways that made the impact of military rule clear. At best, his comments were cautious; at worst, designing.

           “My wife and I and our family are pretty happy too. We are not rich, but I work and we make enough money,” he writes. “I’m sending my daughter to university now, for example. I guess we would be considered middle class by most standards.” In comparison to the days before the latest coup, he suggested, “the current situation is a gift. I love Thailand, and my Thai family and friends. The people I love best in the world, outside of my American family, are all here. Yet this stability comes with high prices – notably repression and oppression. People are not allowed to talk about the government. People are not allowed to demand change.”

He says Thais admire justice and free speech “in the abstract,” but “in the real world in Thailand, they are secondary considerations at best.” Thais can be jailed for making comments on social media about the government or monarchy. “I would certainly never do it, and if any of my Thai friends did something like that I might never see them again.” The mood is resigned but waiting for change: “Since people are not permitted to act or speak their minds, or demonstrate in public, they cling to old and moldy beliefs. No one will make the change themselves because they think the cost is too high.”

“And they are right.”