Although birds made headlines in ’21, stories for some species come to an end

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 70, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, became a mother once again in 2021. In this photo from a previous nesting in 2018, when she was then 67 years old, Wisdom cares for a chick in her nest on Midway Atoll.

Our feathered friends made the headlines in 2021. For a few, the final curtain dropped. For others, their stories offer a ray of hope in some occasionally bleak times.

Feathered time capsule

Testing conducted by scientists identified the bird as a female horned lark, a species that can be found in a few locations in Northeast Tennessee, mostly during winter and early spring. I find it amazing that this bird lived during the same era as now extinct Ice Age beasts, including mastodons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The horned lark is a small songbird. Males have black masks and a yellowish wash on the head and throat. Males also have the namesake “horns” that are actually dark feather tufts atop the sides of the head giving them the look of a small feathered comical devil. The bird is known as “horned lark” in North America and “shore lark” in Europe.

A mother again

Motherhood suits a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom. She hatched her most recent chick in February of 2021. Why is that worthy of a headline? Well, Wisdom is at least 70 years old, making her the world’s oldest known bird. She was first documented when she was banded in 1956 on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. Since that time, she has weathered storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In her lifetime to date, Wisdom has flown millions of miles in search of food at sea. She still returns faithfully to Midway Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest colony of albatrosses, when it’s time to nest. Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bell tolls for the ‘Lord God Bird’

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct in 2021. More accurately, the species was proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act. This decision came 17 years after the largest of North America’s woodpeckers was “rediscovered” in 2004 in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Despite a resurgence of interest in a bird also known dramatically as the “Lord God Bird,” the scientific community, no further evidence surfaced to support the belief in some quarters that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the extinction declaration in a press release issued on Sept. 29, 2021. The release also identified other birds as candidates for a declaration of extinction, including Bachman’s warbler. Like the woodpecker, the warbler’s last stronghold was in Southern swamps. Several species of native Hawaiian birds have also likely passed into oblivion. Other candidates for de-listing from the Endangered Species Act included several species of fish and mussels. The press release acknowledges that while protections were provided too late for the 23 species mentioned within its pages, the ESA has been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed. In total, 54 species have been delisted from the ESA due to recovery, and another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The Service’s current work plan includes planned actions that encompass 60 species for potential downlisting or delisting due to successful recovery efforts. It’s still cold comfort to fans of North America’s largest woodpecker and the mysterious Bachman’s warbler.

Silver Linings

If you’re looking for evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns came with a silver lining, turn your gaze to our fine feathered friends. There’s growing evidence that some birds thrived during strict lockdown periods because they experienced less pressure to cope with human disturbances. Scientists also agree, however, that these benefits will likely prove fleeting for birds as the pace of human activity returns to normal levels.

The babbler babbles again

A living black-browed babbler was captured in 2020 by a pair of researchers. They found the bird on the island of Borneo. Before releasing the bird, they documented their find with photographs. In February of 2021, they published their findings in the journal, BirdingASIA. The rediscovery of the black-browed babbler is significant because the only other time the bird had ever been documented was between 1843 and 1848 when the naturalist Carl Schwaner captured one on the island of Java. After that one “blip” on the radar screens of naturalists and ornithologists, Schwaner’s specimen was put into storage and not much attention paid to the species in the intervening 170 years.

Photographic evidence

A tiny songbird known as the Urich’s tyrannulet has been documented with photos and audio recordings by a research team during an expedition to Venezuela. According to a press release from American Bird Conservancy, the tyrannulet (a species of flycatcher) was first described by science in 1899. Second and third sightings of the bird occurred in the 1940s and in 2005, respectively.

Mystery outbreak fades away

An outbreak of disease among birds across the United States surged in spring and summer of 2021 before gradually fading away by fall. A joint statement of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on Sept. 17, 2021, all states affected by the mysterious bird illness earlier in the year had lifted their do-not-feed recommendation. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported. Symptoms of the illness included crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds. The species most frequently affected were fledgling (juvenile) blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, along with a few other species. While the cause of the outbreak is still unidentified, several possibilities — West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, house finch eye disease and trichomonas parasites — have been ruled out as possible causes.

 

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