Can birds save the world?

John W F, who heads Cornell Varsity’s lab that runs a crowdsourced birding website, answers

Published: 20th January 2017 11:22 PM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2017 05:58 AM   |  A+A-

A representational picture of vultures

Express News Service

BENGALURU: EBird, Cornell University-run online platform where individuals record bird sightings, is said to have the largest biodiversity data available with a representation of over 10,000 species of birds. One of the most profound conclusions that scientists drew from the data was that birds can save the world.
John W Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, came to India for the first time to deliver a lecture on the subject. In a conversation with City Express, he explained that birds are an excellent indicator of environmental health and how the big-data analytics helps understand the global patterns of bird movement and population change.

Alarming Decline
“We have figured out a way to use birds to measure our environment. It took us a long time to come up with eBird, though the idea was conceptualized in 1996. In India, the decline of vultures has been alarming and if eBirds existed in the 90s when it happened then maybe the scenario would be different,” says Fitzpatrick. “India without vultures is unimaginable since it is a country where animals die naturally out in the open,” he adds.
It was Fitzpatrick’s parents’ binoculars and a book on birds that made him a bird watcher at the age of 5. He took up science in college only to study birds. Today, at 65, he has figured out the contribution of birds to mankind and the results are “bizarre” but “not controversial”.

Birds of Fire
Fitzpatrick’s current subject of research is organisms that thrive on wildfire. He is particularly studying Florida Scrub Jay, native to an oak forest in Florida. In the 1970s, population of Scrub Jays had started to decline and scientist hypothesized that it had something to do with wildfires.
Florida being the lightning capital of America made the hypothesis even stronger. “Where there is lightning, there is ignition,” says  Fitzpatrick. Urbanisation had reduced the number of fires.

By playing God, the conservation scientists burnt the Scrub forest in 1991. The result was that the Florida Scrub Jays bounced back to population. Fifteen years after the fire, the Jays started plummeting again. On June 2010, the forest again caught fire and the birds are now thriving. Scrub Jays can survive up to 10 years after the fire.
This indicated the Jays’ dependence on wildfires and the process that keeps the Scrubs environmentally diverse.
Fitzpatrick had another hypothesis after realising that the foothills of the Himalayas have a high incidence of wildfires. “I believe that the oak forests in the middle elevation of the Himalayas used to burn on regular basis and habitats around the region evolved in the presence of fire,” he states.

Importance of Birds
Fitzpatrick says that birds are sensitive environmental indicators. Birds are also agents that connect us to nature in a spiritual way by singing.
The scientist, in his lecture at Christ University on January 19, made the audience listen to the last recorded song of the last remaining OO bird. Polynesian emperors were said to adorn their gowns with the feathers of the OO bird, by 20th Century four out five varieties of OO birds were extinct.
Northern Flicker, a woodpecker that feeds on dead trees, are on the brink of extinction since the dead trees are removed. “Good healthy forests are filled with dead and dying things,” says Fitzpatrick.  

Citizen Science
A five-year survey has concluded that 70 million people in the US describe themselves as a casual bird watchers. When Cornell scientists sought to find the breeding places of birds in 1997, they requested these citizens to help them using the internet. In a matter of days they received 14,000 checklists and the computers at Cornell Lab collapsed. Fitzpatrick closed his hour’s lecture saying that India being a hi-tech country is ready to generate and utilize similar data.

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