fieldnotes

Photograph by Robin Silver

Endangered Species
The Other Bald Eagle?
In the years after World War II, the widespread use of DDT and unchecked killing by people nearly eliminated the bald eagle in the lower 48 states. DDT's 1972 ban and the eagle's 1978 federal designation as an endangered species have helped it recover. In fact, bald eagles are doing so well, they're slated to come off the endangered-species list.

But Arizona conservationists contend that there is a unique population of desert-nesting eagle—known as the southwestern bald eagle—that needs continued protection. To that end, the Arizona Audubon Council, the Maricopa Audubon Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to recognize southwestern bald eagles as an independent population and to list them as endangered. These birds are significantly smaller and mate earlier than other bald eagles, and they "don't interbreed with bald eagles that come down here in the winter," says Bob Witzeman of Maricopa Audubon. This suggests the birds are "isolated behaviorally, biologically, and ecologically," says Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity, thus qualifying them for listing.

In Arizona, eagles have thrived primarily as a result of the efforts of volunteer biologists and bird enthusiasts. Through the Arizona Bald Eagle Nest Watch program, which began in 1978 as a collaboration between Maricopa Audubon and the U.S. Forest Service, the number of eagle breeding areas in the Sonoran Desert jumped from 11 in 1978 to 47 today. Since 1983, nest watchers have rescued 46 nestlings, or 10 percent of all the birds that have fledged. Much of the federal funding for the program, however, comes through the government's endangered species program. "If [the eagle is] taken off the list, that money will dry up," says Witzeman.

Although the petition is currently under review, the USFWS is "looking at staying on track with delisting on a national level," says Greg Beatty, an Arizona-based biologist for the agency. Beatty points out that all southern eagles are smaller and mate earlier than northern birds. He concedes there are no documented cases of southwestern eagles breeding with northern birds, and only one instance when a southern eagle from outside the Sonoran Desert bred with an Arizona bird. However, he says, the point is that the goals for bald eagle recovery have been met and surpassed.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department also supports delisting and has "a plan in draft form that provides guidelines for the management of the [southwestern] bald eagles" in a post delisting world, including maintaining the nest-watch program, which the agency has overseen since 1991, says Robert Magill, nongame-birds program manager. But support will be voluntary, and the federal and private groups that previously funded the program are apt to balk at the cost: $145,000 to $175,000 a year.

Meanwhile the Center for Biological Diversity is ready to take the southwestern bald eagle's case to court if the bird isn't listed. "Lawyers are already lined up," says Silver, adding that the government will be "hard pressed to drive our eagles extinct without a fight."

—Jessica Ebert

 


Children's Health
Nature's Tonic

Psychologist Frances Kuo says she's "not a tree lover." But the University of Illinois researcher has learned that time spent among trees and other greenery can have big benefits for children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition afflicting more than 2 million school-age children in the United States. In a recent nationwide study of about 450 students, Kuo and fellow researcher Andrea Faber Taylor found that after-school activities such as sports, arts, and music ease attention deficit symptoms significantly more when they are held in "green areas" than when they take place in less natural settings. Although the children studied lived in urban, suburban, and rural areas and ranged in age from 5 to 18, they consistently responded well to even brief periods among greenery. "We found the pattern everywhere we looked," says Kuo. She points out that greenery need not be Yosemite-size to be helpful: "We're talking about the difference between a tree-lined street and a skateboard park, or a basketball court in a green setting as opposed to one in an area with more blacktop."

The potential health benefits aren't limited to ADHD sufferers. During a study at the Robert Taylor Homes, a large public-housing complex in Chicago, Kuo and her colleagues found that young residents without the disorder showed symptoms if they lived in buildings with little nearby green space. Other researchers report that being in wilderness areas or gardens, having regular views of open space, and even gazing at paintings of natural scenes heightens the sense of well-being among various groups of people. Yet it's not known exactly why it's good for human bodies and minds. "We may just be more suited to relatively natural settings—we function better in them, they wear less on us," says Kuo. "They may allow us to recover the energy we need for things that are more effortful."

Kuo and Taylor, whose study appeared in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, hope future clinical trials will bear out their findings. Howard Frumkin, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Emory University, says further research may establish natural attention deficit disorder treatment as an attractive alternative or adjunct to conventional pharmaceuticals. "It's simple, it has no toxic side effects—except for maybe a bee sting—and it's cheap," he says. But he cautions that treatments that don't include drugs face some inevitable resistance: "Nobody stands to profit from prescribing nature contact."

—Michelle Nijhuis


National Security
Peace Hawks

The kind of hawk that captivates most nature lovers is usually the broad-winged, feathered sort. But now those who want to protect the earth by getting the United States to kick its oil addiction and switch to cleaner energy alternatives have another kind of hawk to admire. Recently a coalition of national-security analysts—many of them affiliated with politically conservative think tanks like the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies—called for a new energy policy that sharply reduces America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil, claiming "it is dangerous to be buying billions of dollars' worth of oil from nations that are sponsors of or allied with Islamists who foment hatred against the United States."

The coalition issued an "Open Letter to the American People" and a "Set America Free" blueprint calling for a $12 billion investment in alternative-fuel vehicles (such as gas–electric hybrids), improved fuel-efficiency standards for existing cars, and greater support for mass transit. The United States, which has just 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its oil. "The American people need to realize that we're fighting a war against terror, and we're paying for both sides of the war," says Anne Korin, director of policy and strategic planning for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, one of the coalition members. "Every time they go to the gas pump, that money is going to countries in direct opposition to our national-security interests."

The foreign policy analysts who signed on warned about "a perfect storm" of "strategic, economic, and environmental conditions" that demand immediate action. These include record-high oil prices (more than $50 a barrel), terrorism, and rising greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. "We'd be in a lot better shape today if we hadn't slacked off alternative-energy technology in the 1970s and 1980s," rues James Woolsey, a leader of the coalition and CIA director under President Bill Clinton. Woolsey, who drives a Toyota Prius, is bullish on hybrid vehicles and fuels derived from biomass, such as ethanol ("but from agricultural waste, not corn"). "What we need now," he says, "is a coalition between tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, and cheap hawks—people like me—who want to reduce the leverage of Middle East countries, and win this long war on terrorism but with as little shooting as possible." To read the full report, go to www.iags.org/saf.html.

—Keith Kloor



Chapter Spotlight
Safe Harbor

In the New York–New Jersey harbor, there are 17 islands so remote and inhospitable that not even Donald Trump has designs on them. But 15 of these tiny spits of land are the most important nesting areas between the Delaware Bay and Rhode Island for the herons, egrets, and cormorants that, since the late 1970s, have claimed them as their own—thanks largely to water clean enough to support a prey base for them and other colonial waders.

During the past two decades the islands' population of nesting birds has fluctuated, but today, counting parents and newly born chicks, it stands at about 8,000, including double-crested cormorants, great and snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, glossy ibises, and, newly arrived this year, two great blue herons.

Since its inception in 1979 the New York City Audubon Society has conducted an annual nesting survey on the islands—now a part of the Harbor Heron Project—and last year it initiated a shorebird-monitoring program designed to find the foraging grounds of these long-stemmed beauties. By tracking the birds' flight paths from the shore with scopes and binoculars over a period of 11 weeks, volunteers observed that each colony chose very particular and separate hunting grounds. E. J. McAdams, chapter director, says the heron project offers "a natural way of integrating our conservation work with our education efforts."

Toward that end, last summer the chapter launched the Journey to Heron Islands with the aid of Hudson River Estuary Grants. Twice weekly, from Pier 11 on the East River, members of the public were able to hail a northbound New York City water taxi headed for the islands that lie between Queens, LaGuardia Airport, and the Bronx.

The tour's first stop was a small pile of rocks (above), opposite the United Nations, named for former Secretary General U Thant. The stunted trees were loaded with nests of double-crested cormorants and packed with great black-backed gulls and their fledglings. "You may see some cormorants diving," announced tour leader Gabriel Willow, a naturalist and educator at the Prospect Park Audubon Center in Brooklyn. "They can reach depths of more than 60 feet and stay down for more than a minute."

Upriver, nature was reclaiming North Brother Island, once a potter's field, site of a smallpox hospital, and the last address of Typhoid Mary. Roughly 100 pairs of black-crowned night herons perched in its dense vegetation, and great black-backed and herring gulls nested on its rocky shores.

From South Border Island, little blue herons, yellow-crowned night herons, and American oystercatchers were taking off from the shore in dizzying succession. Surveying the scene, Willow declared, "It shows the awesome resiliency of these birds that they can thrive within such a great metropolis." To take a trip to the Heron Islands, log on to www.nycaudubon.org.

—Sydney Horton


© 2005 National Audubon Society
 

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Polly Wants the Remote

The first-ever DVD specifically for avian viewers recently hit the shelves. The film, PollyVision: Strictly for Parrots, focuses on the daily
activities of wild parrots such as hyacinth macaws and glossy black cockatoos in their native habitats, and is intended to enrich the lives of pet birds when their owners aren't home. Edited for a parrot's short attention span, it features footage of birds bathing, foraging, vocalizing, and taking flight in spectacularly colorful flocks. Biologist Jamie Gilardi of The World Parrot Trust, who created the DVD, recommends parrots view it on a flat-screen TV (the flickering of conventional sets is not appropriate for the birds because of their sharp eyesight, he says). Although Polly-Vision is intended for pet birds, Gilardi hopes it will give people "a deeper understanding of wild birds' lives and what pets' needs might really be." The DVD is selling so well that the Parrot Trust is planning a second edition, called Lord of the Wings. All proceeds go to parrot conservation. Go to www.worldparrottrust. org/pollyvision.htm for information.

—Jen Uscher


A Jolt for Reefs

Marine biologist Thomas Goreau has an unconventional solution to the problems plaguing the world's fast-degrading coral reefs: electricity. His group, Massachusetts-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, applies a weak current (safe for swimmers and wildlife) to underwater structures made of cheap construction metal. The electricity causes minerals to precipitate from the seawater onto the metal and form limestone, which serves as a base for coral fragments that have been wired to the frame. Goreau says the coral on these structures grows three to five times faster than nearby natural coral under normal circumstances. In bad conditions, it seems, coral on electrified reefs has an even greater advantage. After a major bleaching event in the Maldives in 1998, Goreau's team found that in some areas 50 times more coral survived on their reefs than on natural formations. He theorizes that the electricity does the work of skeleton growing for the corals, freeing the animals to fight off threats like warm water and algae overgrowth. Goreau's group (www.globalcoral.org) has artificial reefs in Indonesia, Mexico, Panama, and Thailand.

—Krista Carothers

The Poop on Paper

South Asians are trying to save their elephants by turning elephant poo into paper. Asian elephants and their fibrous piles of dung are familiar to circus-goers in the United States, but in their homelands, the elephants' wild counterparts face extinction
from loss of habitat and conflict with humans. In an effort to change how Sri Lankans view elephants, Thusitha Ranasinghe, managing director of Maximus Ltd., began manufacturing dung paper in 1998. The elephant, he explains, is "a perfectly eco-friendly, living paper-pulping being." It does in its stomach what is done chemically in a paper mill by degrading fibrous material "to papermaking-grade pulp." Through Project Peace Paper, Maximus is working to create facilities in areas where the human–elephant conflict is greatest. By using wild-elephant dung in the papermaking process, villagers may see elephants as more of an economic asset. "You can take their poo and give everyone in this community a job," says Karl Wald, a biochemist and former volunteer in Sri Lanka, who began selling Sri Lankan elephant-dung paper last summer. His company, Mr. Ellie Pooh, is the sole U.S. distributor. For more information, go to www.mrelliepooh.com.

—Jessica Ebert

Whale of a Story

One morning last September, Spyros Vamvas, a 60-year-old surfer from San Clemente, California, was in the water, awaiting the perfect wave. That ride came along—just not the sort he was expecting—courtesy of a juvenile California gray whale. Bill
Humphreys, the city's marine safety chief, says the whale was swimming off Lost Winds Beach. Most of the surfers scrambled for the sand, but Vamvas, eyes fixed on the horizon, didn't notice the commotion. As the submerged whale approached him, something startled it (probably the surfer's feet), and it broke the surface with Vamvas on its back. The alarmed animal began to thrash its tail. Vamvas fell off his board, though he was not seriously hurt. But the whale was definitely shaken, Humphreys says, and "took off as fast as a whale could go."

—Jessica Ebert


Dino-soar

When Angela Milner, a paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum, had a CAT scan done on the skull of an archaeopteryx, a peculiar feathered dinosaur, she made a startling discovery: The animal was a complete birdbrain. The new images showed that "Archie" (as he has been nicknamed by scientists) had all the faculties needed for flight—including highly developed areas for vision and depth perception—which correspond exactly to the birds of today but aren't found in other dinosaurs. The findings essentially ended a long-running debate over whether archaeopteryx could fly or not, thus pushing the age of birds back to at least 147 million years ago. The data also positioned this strange creature, with fangs, claws, wings, and a tail, as the first bird, of sorts. "It shows there is a link between small, meat-eating dinosaurs and birds," says Milner.

—Frank Bures



Fat, Lazy Buzzards

A meal of rotting meat, stale bread, and moldy vegetables doesn't set many mouths watering. But for the buzzards that call the garbage dump
outside Santa Marta, Colombia, home, nothing is more delectable than a fresh load of trash. Although vultures normally feed on dead animals, as a rule they "won't expend any more effort than necessary" to get a meal, says Michael Avery, a wildlife biologist with the USDA's National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville, Florida—
and landfills and garbage dumps are easy pickings for them. Until recently the Colombian disposal center received about 300 tons of garbage a day and hosted an estimated 7,000 buzzards. Alex Rodriguez, a city garbage worker, was concerned that the birds—some of which have tripled in size—would starve once the dump officially closed in September, so he asked officials to help the buzzards find a new feeding site. Avery says not to worry, however; it is unlikely the birds have lost their scavenging instincts. He says that unless the buzzards are sick or injured, "they should have no problem locating another food source."

—Jessica Ebert

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