Posts Tagged ‘habitat loss’

Steam Shovel

The dinosaurs are not all dead.
I saw one raise its iron head
To watch me walking down the road
Beyond our house today.
Its jaws were dripping with a load
Of earth and grass that it had cropped.
It must have heard me where I stopped,
Snorted white steam my way,
And stretched its long neck out to see,
And chewed, and grinned quite amiably.

by Charles Malam

Cute little poem, eh? I thought of it when this piece of heavy equipment appeared in the field next-door. It was used to tidy up the erosion that had eaten away at the drainage ditches along the edges of the corn field. Cute, but not true, of course. Outside of heavy equipment, you’re not going to see any dinosaurs wandering about these days.

Six great spasms of extinction have struck the planet over the last 500 million years. The dinosaurs disappeared about 65 million years ago, when some apocalyptic shock rocked the planet. Maybe a massive meteorite crashed into the earth at 72,000 kilometers an hour. Or maybe huge volcanic eruptions filled the sky with ash. Or maybe the meteorite strike set off volcanoes. Whatever it was, this event is known as the K-T boundary, the end of the Cretaceous period (the youngest period of the Mesozoic era) and the Tertiary period, the oldest of the Cenozoic era. It’s easy to imagine this giant rock falling from space and boom, the dinosaurs all keel over dead. Not quite. The extinctions of various groups were spread out over millions of years on either side of the K-T boundary. Dinosaurs died out over about 10 million years.

Dinosaurs used to be, probably still are, a popular subject with primary students. As a parent, I got very tired of dinosaurs as each child progressed through dinosaur units at school. I’m pretty sure teachers loved dinosaurs not because they hoped to turn out a generation of paleontologists, but because they found dinosaurs helpful in leading their restless XYers into basic literacy. In any case, most kindergarteners could identify stegosaurus or triceratops and even discuss the merits of the volcano or meteorite theory. Unfortunately, fewer youngsters could tell you that the K-T boundary represented the 5th Great Extinction. Nor could they tell you much about the 6th Great Extinction, its timeline, or its cause. The 6th Great Extinction is ongoing. We are the cause.

The 6th Great Extinction began centuries ago, as humans spread around the globe. In Madagascar, humans arrived about 500 AD. Following hard on their arrival was the extinction of the elephant birds, birds like the Aepyornis maximus, a giant almost 10 feet tall, with massive legs. Seven of the seventeen genera of lemurs disappeared. A pygmy hippopotamus, two huge species of land tortoises, an aardvark, all gone. In New Zealand, the Moa, another giant bird disappeared. The Thylacine, the largest marsupial predator to have survived into historic times, was exterminated from Tasmania. The Dodo was infamously slaughtered on Mauritius. In recent times, unfathomable numbers of passenger pigeons were destroyed. Of course, that’s just a tiny list of notables, some of the megafauna, from a long, long list of extinctions. E.O. Wilson estimates 27,000 species are currently lost per year. Scientist Paul Ehrlich estimates extinction rates at 7,000 to 13,000 times the background rate, 70,000 to 130,000 species per year. By 2022, 22% of all species will be extinct if no action is taken. As the human population spirals beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, habitat loss is the most significant cause of extinctions. If we fail to arrest climate change, the rate of extinctions we are already causing will increase.

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The property neighbouring ours doesn’t have a house on it. It is agricultural land used for growing corn and soybeans, with the exception of one odd little patch of forest. The few acres of trees form a little island in the midst of a sea of corn. The soybean crop has been harvested, but the corn is still standing.

A drainage system underlies the land and empties into a rather impressive ditch that borders the fields, eventually emptying into our little river. The water level in the river can change dramatically in heavy rain, no doubt in part due to the artificially accelerated rate of drainage of water from the soil. I took a walk along the ditch to take a look at the forest island, now that the soybeans have been harvested and a path along the edge of the field is clear.

It is composed mostly of impressive Red Pines (Pinus resinosa). They may have formed part of a plantation at one time, but if so, the straight-row pattern that is usually easy to see wasn’t evident. It seems strange that this one little patch of trees, a few acres worth, has been left untouched. I would like to think that they were saved for their majestic beauty, but it seems more likely that plans to harvest the timber will follow at some time in the future. Although the pines predominate, there is also a sprinkling of small maples and beech, now leafless. Around the edge of the forest fragment is a narrow ribbon of birch trees.

CORRECTION: Thanks to Tony for letting me know that the trees are actually Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris)! They were planted about 35 years ago as a Christmas Tree plantation, but never harvested. As the trees were planted close together in anticipation of a harvest in 6 to 8 years, they grew to be rather spindly when they exceeded their “best before” date as Christmas trees. A number fell over and were otherwise lost, so the remaining stand represents the survivors. They appear to be doing very well.

If I had paid more attention to the cache of cones I came across, I might have done a better job of identifying these trees. Scots Pines are popular as Christmas trees because of their shape and good needle retention, while their fast growth habit and good response to shaping makes them popular with growers. They were one of the first tree species to be introduced to North America. John Laird Farrar notes in Trees in Canada that in Europe the Scots Pine is a tall, straight tree with wood of excellent quality. In North America, the trunks are seldom straight (although I would have to say most of the trees in this stand were pretty straight) and the wood quality is poor owing to the seed source chosen by early settlers. The trees can live in the range of 150 to 300 years, so this stand is still young.

Up until a couple of hundred years ago, most of eastern North America was covered in forest. Now, in eastern Ontario, in the Ottawa region, forest cover is only 13 percent in some areas, and the remaining forest is highly fragmented, a few acres here, a few acres there.

Fragments are not good habitat for birds. Forest fragmentation increases nest predation by a stunning list of predators. Skunks, opossums, and raccoons hunt at night. Snakes, chipmunks, even deer, are not averse to a tasty egg when the opportunity arises. Other birds such as blue jays and crows will rob nests of eggs and nestlings. Cats take a huge toll on the bird population. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and their larger chicks often survive at the expense of the host’s own young. Predation is higher in forest fragments than in continuous forest. One study found in suburban woodlots, about 70% of nests suffer predation. In rural woodlots, it’s about 50%. Other studies have found different rates, but all found that nests in fragments suffer more predation than nests in continuous forest cover.

Fragments are population sinks. That is, more birds are killed over the breeding season than are replaced by new youngsters, resulting in a net loss to the population. The birds that nest in fragments are like a steady trickle of water going down the drain. Large forests are usually population sources because breeding success is relatively high. For example, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the largest national park in the eastern United States, has more than 200,000 hectares of continuous forest. Some 10,000 nesting pairs of wood thrush produce a surplus of almost three thousand females each year beyond the number required to replace the breeding females who have died.

Fragmentation of habitat is one of the reasons the songbird population is crashing. To read more about fragmentation and other songbird issues, check out Dr. Bridget Stutchbury’s book Silence of the Songbirds.

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The North American boreal forest stretches from Alaska across 6,000 kilometers to Newfoundland. It is the largest wilderness left in North America and is part of an ecosystem that encircles the northern hemisphere. Vast amounts of carbon are locked up in the boreal forest. Their biomass is so huge that in the northern spring, when their growth is at its peak, worldwide levels of carbon dioxide fall and the worldwide levels of oxygen rise. Boreal forests are just as important to the global ecosystem as tropical forests. It is estimated that boreal forests store almost twice as much carbon as tropical forests and three times as much as temperate forests. The carbon storage of Canada’s boreal forest is estimated to be equal to nearly 27 years of the world’s carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. Click here to read more on global warming and Canada’s boreal forest.


In addition, the boreal forest acts as North America’s bird nursery. Over 300 of North  America’s 325 species regularly breed in the boreal forest region. Considering the overwhelming threats already faced by songbirds, preserving the boreal forest may be absolutely vital to their very survival. Many groups are working to preserve the boreal forest including the Boreal Songbird Initiative.


More and more, development and resource extraction are encroaching upon this ecosystem. About two hectares of Canada’s boreal forest are clearcut every minute. Further, projects such as Alberta’s Tar Sands contribute hugely to global warming. New research by Global Forest Watch Canada shows that the extent of greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations is much worse than reported due to the failure of oil companies and governments to account for emissions from forest destruction. Christy Ferguson, Greenpeace climate and energy coordinator, says “Governments and companies are working hard to downplay the impacts of tar sands operations, but it turns out that they don’t even know the full extent of the problem.” Denial is not a climate strategy. Read more here.


An easy way that you can help to protect the boreal forest is this: simply choose forest-friendly products when you go shopping. There is now a good range of green disposable paper products available just about everywhere. You can get facial tissues, bathroom tissue, and paper towels made from 100% recycled paper. Buying these products saves a tree and also supports the recycling industry. Sponge pockets and quicker-picker-uppers, despite what the commercials would have you believe, are not magic wands. They are just paper towels that support the destruction of forests. Look for recycled-fibre printer paper too.

Thursday, October 15th, is Blog Action Day on Climate Change. Connect to the movement at blogactionday.org. October 24th is International Day of Climate Action. Come out and participate! You can find an event near you at www.350.org.

Thanks to Birdgirl of The Marvelous in Nature for the great photos of the boreal forest of northern Ontario.


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Coffee growing under rainforest canopy

Coffee growing under rainforest canopy

The coffee shrub is native to the rainforests of Ethiopia. Introduced to Brazil by the mid-1700s, coffee plantations today cover an estimated 7 million acres in the northern Neotropics from Columbia and Brazil to Mexico. Traditionally, coffee has been grown on the side of mountains, where it thrives in the shade of trees and provides habitat for both native species and wintering migratory birds.

In the 1930s, ornithologist Ludlow Griscom noted that the birds found in shaded coffee plantations varied little from those found in undisturbed forest. Since then, studies have confirmed that not only birds, but also mammals, reptiles, and insects thrive on shade coffee plantations. As rainforest in the Neotropics continues to disappear, shade coffee plantations have become a vital resource for birds and other wildlife.

Sun-grown coffee plantation (Photo credit: wikipedia)

Sun-grown coffee plantation (Photo credit: wikipedia)

But coffee grows slowly. Coffee bushes take 3 to 4 years to mature. Over the last 20 years, coffee growers have been replacing traditional varieties with new, high yielding, sun-tolerant varieties. Full-sun farming requires the removal of the forest and replaces it with a virtual biological desert. Without the forest birds to eat insects, and decaying materials to feed the plants, sun-grown coffee requires the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. At least half of the coffee grown in the Neotropics has been converted to full sun. You can read more about coffee plantations at Coffee and Conversation.


Buying shade-grown coffee is probably the most important thing you can do to help save the rainforest and protect migratory birds. A number of brands of certified shade-grown coffee are readily available. Many of the grocery stores in southern Ontario carry Kicking Horse coffee in their organic section. When you drink a cup of shade-grown, organic, fair-trade coffee, you are getting your day off to a good start! You can practically feel the glow of a halo as you contribute to these important causes! All by enjoying a great cup of coffee! What could be better?


Fair trade and organic coffees are not necessarily shade-grown. Look for the shade-grown certification to be certain. If you can’t find shade grown coffee in your local supermarket, try specialty stores and organic foodstuff sellers. You can also purchase shade-grown coffee easily online.
Some other brands I found locally include the following:


Foodsmiths coffee is packaged for a local organics store by Creemore Coffee Company. You can buy shade-grown coffee directly from Creemore Coffee at creemorecoffee.com.


You can buy shade-grown coffee from Salt Spring Coffee at saltspringcoffee.com.

Another online source is Birds and Beans Coffee.

Still drinking instant??? Most instant coffee is made from the poorest, sun-grown beans. If you purchase an inexpensive one-cup or small-pot coffeemaker, brewing the real thing is very fast. You can enjoy a better cup of coffee and help the birds with a minimum effort. Wake up and smell the coffee!

The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is a migratory bird seen around Willow House in the summer that is often found on shade-grown coffee plantations in the winter.

The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is a bird seen around Willow House in the summer that is often found on shade-grown coffee plantations in the winter.

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Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World’s Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them, by Bridget Stutchbury. HarperCollins, 2007.

Every fall, we northern dwellers are accustomed to “our” birds leaving our cold, snowy winter behind and flying south. This seems like a very sensible thing to do, and if we think of them at all, it is probably to imagine the birds on vacation, soaking up the rays in the Neotropics. Far from being on holiday, birds that migrate south face a difficult season. They must compete with other birds for habitat that will keep them fed and allow them to build up the reserves they will need for the flight north and a new breeding season. Increasingly, their lives are imperiled by the destruction of the rainforest as more and more trees are replaced with agricultural fields. Other threats include the heavy use of pesticides that can result in mass poisonings. When they return north with the spring, life is no easier, with widespread habitat loss, cats, windows, lights, towers, and other disasters-in-waiting ready to take their toll.

Birds are amazing creatures, little more, it would seem, than sparks of life wrapped in feathers. What incredible lives they live! However, the ever-increasing challenges that songbirds must face, both in the north and the south, are causing a slow but steady decline in songbird populations across the continent. In the last 3 to 4 decades, the songbird population has fallen by a horrifying 20 to 30%. Songbirds are a vital part of the ecosystem. They perform irreplaceable services that we humans count on, from insect control to spreading plant seeds. The fading away of the songbird population is a symptom of the deep wound we have inflicted on the natural world. If they go, will we be next?

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, and a fellow and research associate at the Smithsonian Institute. She and her husband have devoted their careers to the study of songbirds. In Silence of the Songbirds, Stutchbury takes the reader with her as she looks at songbirds in their winter homes. She explains the science behind songbird studies and tools such as the Breeding Bird Survey. She examines the many threats that songbirds face. Finally, she offers the reader a list of solutions, how everyone can contribute to halting the decline of songbird populations. Anyone who has ever looked for the first robin of spring or enjoyed the sound of a bird singing in the yard will want to read this book. Understanding the problem is the first step in finding solutions.

How To Save A Songbird

Buy shade-grown coffee that is both organic and fairly-traded.

Buy organic produce

Avoid non-organic North American crops such as alfalfa, Brussel sprouts,blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Buy unbleached, recycled paper products

Turn off the lights at night in city buildings and homes during peak migration periods

Keep your cat indoors

For more on these issues, see these posts:

Every Cat an Indoor Cat

Natural Born Killers

Organic Food is For the Birds

Climate Change and the Boreal Forest

Shade the Coffee, Shelter the Birds

For more on the use of pesticides on potatoes in North America, see Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, reviewed on November 23.


Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) catching insects on the wing.

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