Just A Sparrow

Just A Sparrow

Today I assist our area’s most celebrated birder in conducting the “BBS” for our government. The Breeding Bird Survey gives me a great perspective when comparing African avifauna to the bird life of my home.

The BBS is a combined effort of the three countries of North America and volunteers like Gregg Painter and myself. For more than a half century at the end of Spring more than 4000 pairs of skilled volunteers travel nearly 30,000 miles, each pair making the same 50 stops each year to count bird species.

The initiative was begun because of the devastation caused by DDT in the mid-20th century. DDT nearly wiped out hundreds of bird species in North America.

Documenting that loss and effectively correlating the declines to pesticides led to progressive legislation in all three countries that limited the use of many pesticides. But even more importantly, the BBS evidence became one of the most important justifications for passing America’s landmark Endangered Species Act.

(And that became the model that Kenya and America would use in their partnership to create the fantastic world CITES treaty, which among so many other successes saved elephants.)

Each pair of volunteers begins just before sunrise in their area, just when it’s presumed most of the migratory species have already gone through, but before most breeding species are deep into rearing their chicks. At that point most birds go silent, and identification is often by sound.

I joined Gregg about ten years ago, and he’d been doing it ten years before that. It’s a hoot to reflect back on the days when our stops were designated by landmarks like “the old oak opposite the grey barn.” With time, of course, the old oak falls down and is covered by grass and the barn is leveled for more cropfield! Today we use GPS coordinates.

At each stop Gregg gets out of the car and I time him for exactly 3 minutes. During that brief period he shouts out everything he sees or hears.

While we collate the actual numbers scientists are interested primarily in the variety of species. The government takes our numbers and our reporting of the weather at the time, together with the data received from our neighboring volunteers, to create “analyzed results.”

This allows the auditors to determine how reliable our data is.

Cumulatively in the last ten years our route of about 70 km has established that this area has 105 breeding bird species: click here for our list.

In roughly the same area of the Serengeti where I will be in a few weeks there are roughly 465 species. In fact Gregg and I undertook our own Tanzanian bird count a few years ago and identified 213 species in ten days of non-intensive birding.

(The area in which I mostly guide in sub-Saharan Africa has about 1200 species of breeding birds. Migrants from Europe intersecting with intra-African migrants in April increases that observable number to nearly 1500.)

Breeding birds are a much better indication of an ecosystem’s health than just all the birds one might see. Migratory birds often increase our area’s species count by half, and subject as they are to the vagaries of weather usually don’t represent anything consistently.

As climate change progresses we note some species declining and others increasing, and this is as true in Africa as near my home. Studying what those target species eat and what eats them, and what they need for nesting reflects specific changes in the greater environment.

Because there are so many more easily visible birds than easily visible mammals and reptiles, any amateur naturalist is going to develop a fascination with them. In addition to being smaller than most mammals and reptiles, they usually move more quickly and have a much wider range of vocalizations.

In my opinion for us amateurs learning to identify birds develops sensory and memory skills much more acutely than learning to identify animals.

Yes, there are more than ten times as many birds for me to find in sub-Saharan Africa than here at my home, but birding is not just a numbers game. Learning this one component of the ecological system helps understand the whole puzzle.

Fewer components as we have near my home in a non-tropical environment to a certain extent makes this “game” more easily mastered.

In the end learning about the wild – whether in the Serengeti or in the Driftless Region of northwest Illinois – helps to remind us that our dangerously egocentric view of the world that we are in total control of our destiny is abject folly.

No one of us is any more important than the swallows gulping up bugs or the owls demicing the barns or the gulls reseeding acres of burned forests. We’re just another little sparrow.