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The ancient world teemed with birds (aeon.co)
152 points by autokill 34 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

This was a nice read, and I thought it would be more of a statement on our current planetary catastrophe. If you were worried it was another depressing (if accurate) "everything is dying" article, it's not.

Although, it is sad we don't notice the decline of birds, or anything else.

The book "Whittled Away" has a fantastic description of how ridiculous it is people where I live think the fisheries are abundant. They're a wasteland compared to what once was, but since humans have short lives and shorter memories we don't know what we're missing.

Same goes for light pollution (how many stars is a lot? I still can't quite make out the milky way in a field an hour from the city), or noise pollution (how many birds were driven from the city by the infernal noise of cars?) or just... sight pollution, I guess (how few leaves do you see in a day?)

https://books.google.ie/books?id=XQiWDwAAQBAJ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shifting_baseline

Birds have been in significant and will probably continue to decline due to human activity.


The main drivers I think are plain habitat loss, pesticide use (associated decline in insect population), and large scale change in available food and climate.

I think the easiest to address would be pesticide and herbicide use -- widely known to have other negative side effects, such as effect on bees, possible human effects, biodiversity loss, etc. Hopefully it can be replaced by techniques like crop diversification and maybe robotic/biological pest control.

Cats, as cute as they are, are a major contributor as well.


> Feral cats on islands are responsible for at least 14% global bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions and are the principal threat to almost 8% of critically endangered birds, mammals, and reptiles.


Two more from The Atlantic:

- How Cats Used Humans to Conquer the World - -- Ancient DNA from 209 cats over 9,000 years tell the story of their dispersal. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/cat-domi...

- The End of Cats: An Interview With the New Zealand Economist Calling to Eliminate All Kitties -- "The cat lobby here is just as feral, self-centered and as balmy as your gun lobby is" https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/the-end...

> "The cat lobby here is just as feral, self-centered and as balmy as your gun lobby is"

Damn, that is quite the quote. I imagine he's not quite being fair (though I admittedly have little exposure to the pet politics of New Zealand", but I have noticed a strong and immediate current of defensiveness among cat owners whenever anything negative about cats is brought up (in a way that's absent when say, domestic dogs as a vector for disease are brought up). Though it's perhaps a little understandable that cat lovers would be a little thin-skinned due to the general bad rap that cats get.

While that paper singles out cats, any introduced mammal species (rats, foxes, dogs etc.) on an island with ground-nesting and/or flightless birds is a huge problem...

Yes, that's a massive issue in New Zealand. We have a programme called Predator Free 2050 aiming to address it. There are some very interesting organisations working on solutions, such as the Cacophony Project (https://cacophony.org.nz/)

I added this up the thread, but here again so you don't miss it.


What a madman. Cats > birds.

Not just mammals. Fireants got most of the quail when they arrived in the woods I grew up in. Neighbors lost most of their guinea hens too. And rabbits got pretty scarce.

There's a bit of a difference here: the staggering figures for wildlife killed by cats that they cite is for the US:

> the felines kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 billion and 20.7 billion small mammals, such as meadow voles and chipmunks, each year.

But since free-roaming dogs are very uncommon in the US (and most of the developed world), they have to jump to strays and owned free-roaming dogs across the world to make their comparison.

To be clear, the latter is on point relative to what we're discussing in this thread (eg the feral cats statistic). But there are solutions in reach that would be acceptable for dealing with strays (eg, what we do for dogs in the US), that apply to both dogs and cats. The difference is that this would cause dogs' threat to the local environment to nearly vanish, while cats would still pose a massive threat to local wildlife due to owners that let their cats roam.

This. People in suburban and urban areas should be banned from having outdoor cats, period.

Yes, let's make the life of a pet miserable so we can have urban/suburban birds...

As if the problem is the loss of birds in Manhattan or Queens, and not the loss of birds in millions of acres of rural USA (where cats are not really the problem), for example...

>Yes, let's make the life of a pet miserable so we can have urban/suburban birds...

Responsible people don't let their dogs roam the streets as they can be a threat to strangers, children etc.

why should we treat cat's any differently especially when cats kill far more.

The reason you gave for not allowing dogs to roam does not apply to cats.

We shouldn't be making like for pets more miserable. We should be explaining to people the damage that cats to to the local ecology and dissuading them from having them. A fun talk I had with my kids.

Kids are far more destructive for the environment than cats, though.

Allowing one damaging thing isn't a good enough reason for allowing another damaging thing. In both cases the costs and benefits need to stand on their own merits.

Actually, no, I don't agree with that. It's more of a balancing act than a piecemeal analysis. Being generally frugal leaves you more space to waste a few resources on specific things. Now, some things are over the limit regardless of how frugal you are generally, and pet cats may or may not be one of those.

It seems like here you’re arguing that banning some damaging things might make some others allowable. That’s the inverse of the argument I was discussing.

I understand the argument and it’s reasonable, but in the case if each activity under consideration, they have to be assessed relative to the total harm to the environment, not to directly against each other individually. But there could be a hierarchy of comparison.

Still, as I said this is the inverse case to the one I was replying to, which I still think is completely unreasonable.

Sure, but it still reads like a guy idling his Hummer so he can explain the environmental effects of someone's bicycle.

Source on that? Most kids don't make a habit of killing local wildlife. Or are you using "kids" as a proxy for "habitat loss from rising human population"?

I'm including indirect kills over their lifetime, not just direct kills over the childhood (kittens aren't capable of killing that much either), but otherwise, it's a fairly 1:1 comparison, nothing to do with whether the human population is rising or not.

What are you calling "indirect kills"?

Anything that we consume and whose production method kills some number of birds. The number is immense, and it includes all kinds of stuff that most people do, particularly those in wealthier areas of the world.

And nuclear weapons are more destructive than my 16 year old. So that's all good then.

Sorry, what point were you trying to make?

If you were a producer of nuclear weapons and were warning people of the destructiveness dangers of having 16 year olds, I'd find it absurd. Wouldn't you?

Essentially, it's hypocritical to talk about environmental dangers on one activity when performing a much more environmentally destructive activity.

Well, an urban centre doesn't have much "local ecology" to begin with...

The only birds in my city are pidgeons (that defecate everywhere), sparrows and crows. At least the only ones I actually see.

Which city would that be? Because I suspect you would be surprised by the levels of diversity that are clinging on.

I'm pretty sure there are more birds in the parks, where there are trees and stuff. But in my street I don't see those kind of birds.

I guess if those are our options then better for all if your cat is inside safe from cars and predators and yay we get birds!

Or, you know, don't enslave cats in miserable settings.

I am fine with cats being miserable. That is an acceptable outcome.

Cats are very useful for removing rats. Cat ban is considered harmful.

Hawks, owls and snakes are much more useful for removing rats, and cats are about as useful for removing those as they are for removing rats.

I do not support a cat ban, but that argument is not a good one.

Is there a way for me to reliably employ a hawk, owl, or snake around my property?

Just by using pesticides and herbicides more precisely you can have a major remedial impact. Many farmers would apply either the wrong pesticide against an insect or at a stage that makes it less effective against its target. However, we have a myriad of weather data available, and together with insect life cycle data you can create a model that tells you 1) when to spray 2) the epicenter if applicable and 3) dynamic feedback as the weather changes.

I have a early stage startup that has this as one of its long term goals. But to be honest there are other lower hanging fruit in agriculture that makes more sense to start with—the startup is more of an "idea" bank than a business at this point—and I won't be quitting a job in finance for a risky "smart farm" idea any time soon.

EDIT: By the way, Johannesburg and Pretoria are bird paradises. There are even feral populations of lovebirds (indigenous to Namibia) that fly around outside my office as we speak.

> The main drivers I think are plain habitat loss

Fragmentation is also an issue people don't think enough about. You see percentages of forested ground and think "well that looks pretty good" but when you go check it out it's disparate strands with fields inbetween, or thin rows of trees a few meters wide. This means only "edge" species have a habitat, and even for them their domain is not really a boundary with a flux between different ecosystems anymore, they've got identical open areas on both sides. It also means the bigger species don't have the room to live there anymore.

Going to public school in Wisconsin, I remember being taught about fragmentation and how it let brood parasites like cowbirds have better access to the nests they sneak their eggs into, which leads to the death of lots of chicks from other species. Wisconsin still has lots of forest, but with so many roads and fields cutting through them, they just can't support the same level of wildlife.

Biological pest control has always been practiced historically. It's always good to have frogs in the paddy fields. Insect eating birds for the most part tend to be omnivores, hence dangerous for crops as well, unfortunately. I'm not aware of any existing solutions that benefit both birds and farming. I would love to be proven wrong about this statement, but under most cases Farming and Birds are antithetical to each other.

Habitat loss may be reversing now due to urbanization, as population growth has slowed (and largely stabilized or even declined in the developed world).

I'm guessing as those little rural towns in Japan become increasingly abandoned, animals are moving in.

Are birds actually so scarce elsewhere in the world? My experience in a small city on the east coast of Australia is that birds are everywhere and in great variety. On a recent morning, I counted 10 different species of bird walking 500m to the shops and back. And it is hard to ignore the noise from the large flocks of sulfur crested cockatoos and rainbow lorakeets that frequent my town.

I understand that what I see is already a pale comparison compared to 200 or 10,000 years ago, but the numbers are still impressive. I am also aware of how little attention my fellow citizens pay to the variety of bird life around them. But it is still surprising to me that people can talk about cities having few birds and little diversity.

On my property in the US, I've seen bald eagles, hawks, owls, at least 3 species of woodpeckers, any number of songbirds, hummingbirds, turkey, pheasant, turkey vultures and a half dozen migratory ducks and geese species.

The first year here, we didn't feed them at all- there's really no shortage of natural foraging for them. We hardly saw any of the smaller birds, and truth be told I didn't think we had many around.

Then we had an unusually brutal winter, and started putting out suet to help. Sure enough, all kinds started showing up. They stuck around through the spring, but we stopped feeding them in part because the suet was attracting unwanted attention from other animals. Since then, they've mostly "disappeared" again, though I know now they're not gone.

It's worth pointing out that I live in an area that is predominantly farmland, rural homes, and some nice forested spots. We don't have a shortage of insects or really any other wildlife, either, in spite of the horrors that pesticides are supposedly wreaking upon them.

Thanks for the response :)

If I go walking in the nearby bushland (in Australia) I will notice small honeyeaters and other bird life that doesn't come into the suburbs at all. It's amazing what secrets life keeps so close to us!

I'm back home after one month in Australia and when I was there I noticed a phenomenal amount of birds everywhere, even in Sydney, even in the City. I think that nobody can keep sleeping past 6 AM in rural areas, but Australia is one of those countries when people wake up early.

Compared to Australia, Europe is a wasteland: we do have birds but not as many. I guess you can't have both a lot of people and a lot of animals. When there are many of us there isn't enough space left for them.

> When there are many of us there isn't enough space left for them.

Something I’ve always wondered is whether this has to be true, or if we’ve decided as a society that it should be true, and if we decided that we wanted to attract more birds into our world, if we really could.

Pigeon spikes are everywhere in San Francisco. I’ve even seen them positioned on security cameras. Now I get that we have a lot of rats with wings flying around, but that seems like a feast for falcons, if we wanted to employ more falcons as we do around City Hall.

Around the beach I’ll occasionally see hawks, and generally the biggest danger to them comes from the ravens flying around not wanting any hawks. If you go around Golden Gate Park, there’s an enormous variety of bird species flying around and roosting. I’ve seen a turkey vulture roosting on the signs and a goddamned peacock LARPing as a roadrunner in the morning. I am more amazed it has neither been eaten by coyotes nor hit by a car yet. Seriously, I took my first picture of it two years ago and I still see it a few times a month around the same area.

There’s also the parrots of Telegraph Hill, an escaped domestic population that turned wild and has managed to sustain itself. We just built the Transbay Park (“Salesforce Park” since Salesforce owns the naming rights, but I’ll stick with the generic name), the bus terminal below has just entered service, the park has only been open a bit longer than that and already I see numerous small birds up there every time I go up there.

Down by the waterfront I saw an owl flying around right by Aquatic Park. I was pretty lucky to see it at all since it was going for a kill and the wings don’t make a sound.

This is just in one city! I think if we stopped behaving in an actively hostile way towards birds, save some falconry for population control, we might see the diversity of urban bird populations increase. If we actually introduced niches into our infrastructure for them to roost, managed our urban forests a bit better and planted some more trees while we’re at it, we could maybe even see them thrive here.

>There’s also the parrots of Telegraph Hill, an escaped domestic population that turned wild and has managed to sustain itself.

Speaking of current attitudes towards wildlife, I find it interesting how we are so keen to promote biodiversity but usually unwilling to consider invasive or introduced species as a way of achieving more stable biodiversity. I think with the ongoing threats to our environment and how this impacts us, we will turn more and more to using invasive species to save our natural and urban environments. I hope we stop thinking of nature as a static thing unable to adapt in ways beyond the limited scope of human imagination.

We might come to that, but I think the attitude we have right now is reflective of a very basic fact that we rarely admit to ourselves: introducing new species into an ecosystem adds an additional level of complexity that changes it in ways that are often detrimental, and we are not equipped to even begin to understand how to mitigate the negative effects by managing that much complexity.

In short, we simply don’t understand the ecosystems that exist well enough to begin to try to make any positive changes to it. However, I think the Parrots are okay if they stay in the city because San Francisco is an almost entirely built environment.

I've been in places in the USA and Europe that just feel devoid of birds or often insects. Lift a log in Australia and there are dozens of living things crawling around. In parts of the US, more often than not, there's nothing.

I have a pretty routine suburban backyard in South Australia and there are loads of birds, as with your experience - lorikeets, wattlebirds, etc.

Using Australia as the baseline measure for wildlife/insect levels and you're going to find the vast majority of places wouldn't keep up..

That reply got me thinking - thanks.

In Europe you can see some "forests" which are devoid of any life. I lived near one as a kid. They are simply not functioning ecosystems but dead silent wood plantations.

Anecdotally, I grew up in Rural Ontario and there are far fewer birds around my home town then there were when I was a kid. Yes, there are still lots of birds, but the winter migrations used to bend the hydro lines down to the ground.

I live downtown in a large Canadian city and there's magpies, pigeons, sparrows, ducks, geese, and the occasional hawk or falcon. That's just downtown. Go to one of our parks and there's more variety. An hour outside of town, even more. No, birds don't seem particularly scarce here.

Those are all birds that have been able to adapt very well to urban life. For each one of those, there are scores that haven't been able to do so.

I think we're blessed in Australia with variety and number of birds.

But even here, especially in larger cities they seem to be fewer and fewer and less diverse.

Sparrows were every where in Bangalore when I was growing up. After the city grew crazy, the pollution grew and so did the Mobile phone towers.

You won't be able to find a single sparrow today. Not one. There is a also a noticeable decline in other bird population and diversity. Mostly because Bangalore's lakes are gone. There was a lake called Hebbal Lake where migratory birds would visit from Australia every year. They've stopped coming.

Unmitigated disaster.

Vultures man, those are things that we nearly lead to extinction recently in India. I remember when I was a kid there used to be a road in Delhi with the dead tree and vultures sitting all over it. But by the time I was an adult there were no Vultures in most of India. The heavy use of antibiotics we realised too late was causing the decline. The Parsi people (zorastrians) were impacted badly because their religious practice is to let the body be eaten away by animals, and without vultures the bodies were just rotting very badly.

What nearly wiped out the vultures wasn't antibiotics... there may be other factors, but the main one was a specific anti-inflammatory drug (diclofenac) which was used liberally in treating any sign of illness in livestock and which turned out to be highly toxic to vultures. It is now banned in India. The thing about livestock medicine today is that diagnosis is generally too expensive for individual cases... if an animal looks sick you basically give an anti-inflammatory and an antibiotic and hope for the best, the former so that it'll feel well enough to eat so it won't get too weak, and the later to hopefully cure the illness. So both anti-inflammatory and antibiotics get used very liberally, to tragic consequences.

We had a Parsi tower of silence in Bangalore as well. It was in the outskirts back in the day. The city consumed those areas and they are now in the heart of the city. I wonder where the facility is these days.

Hebbal lake still exists, and does see migrant birds like painted storks and pelicans every winter. You can see for yourself, and BngBirds visits Hebbal Lake on the first Sunday of every month to see birds. The migrant birds that do visit India in winter come from colder parts of Asia and Europe, not Australia btw.

Yes many lakes are destroyed in Bangalore and there are no sparrows. Its doubtful that mobile towers have anything to do with it though.

>>Hebbal lake still exists

More like Hebbal Pool. You call that a lake? It was way bigger when I was a kid. The other side where Lumbini gardens exists now is literally reduced to a recreational pool.

And yes birds from Australia indeed used to visit Hebbal Lake. I guess that very memory is erased and sounds largely alien to people now.

I was living in Chengdu for a year and I remember that I was surprised by the almost total lack of birds. In Hong Kong, where I am at the moment, there are more birds, but seems less than what we have back home in Northern Europe.

Mao had a policy of bird extermination https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Pests_Campaign

"birds are public animals of capitalism"

There are not many birds in any large cities apart from pigeons, which are usually considered a nuisance.

Hongkong has the advantage that it is actually very small and dense with nature (in hills and parks) never far away, which I'm guessing helps a lot in sustaining a more abundant and diverse bird population.

Concerning passenger pigeons[0], which went 100% extinct in 1910 due to hunting: "in 1866, one flock in southern Ontario was described as being 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide and 500 km (310 mi) long, took 14 hours to pass, and held in excess of 3.5 billion birds."


Bird populations are almost literally the canaries in the coal mine. And they are dropping rapidly.

The future does not look so good for us.

If there exists better evidence of our tendency to read the comments before the article, I’ve yet to see it.

Might need a headline change back to its original “Birds are ‘winged words’“, though I probably wouldn’t have read it then honestly.

This was very good. Thanks for sharing.

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