April 13, 2010

Bird Portraits

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Sometimes, even birds cannot fly away from the danger they face.

On Thursday, Prof. Steve Kress, ornithology, Cornell University, gave the lecture “The Sweet-Voiced Bird has Flown: Portraits of Common Birds in Decline,” which focused on the decline of particular bird populations.

The lecture introduced the exhibit at Mann Library of the same name. The exhibit displays sketches and paintings illustrated by members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI). The GNSI originally formed in Washington, D.C. out of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1968. The guild subsequently branched to the four corners of the nation, providing artistic interpretations of science-related themes for the general public. Each species of bird depicted in the exhibit faces foreseeable danger, including decreased population size and possible extinction. Kress invited the audience to tour the small exhibit as he narrated distinctive information regarding each bird population, including decline percentages, reasons for the declines, and preventative measures to limit the danger.

While the exhibit illustrates 20 species at risk, the Bobwhite quail has the highest risk of endangerment with an 83 percent decline in population size. One threat to this species includes the fire ant, an unlikely predator that feeds on the embryos of quail eggs. However, quail remains a highly esteemed species among hunters. Conservationists rely on this popularity to ensure the species’ continued survival. A common threat to bird populations is suburbanization. Large populations of birds disappear due to the closely manicured lawns of suburbia. These sterile, un-shaded squares, often embedded with fertilizer, provide little protection for birds and almost no opportunity for nesting.

Kress references the Ithaca setting as either forest or manicured hills, providing no medium, such as grassland, to support many species, such as the field sparrow. The threat of climate change also contributes to declining numbers of birds. Rising water temperatures disrupts bird behavior. Birds possess the ability to fly many miles to find food. Frequently, birds may fly eight miles over water to catch fish and to return with enough energy to feed their young.

Yet, with increasing water temperatures, fish must venture further distances, and they find difficulty completing trips of 20 or more miles. Consequently, they must sometimes leave the young birds to starve. Kress pointed out that science may still save many populations. Scientists strive to identify endangered species before populations drop too low. When these numbers drastically decline, small populations face the risk of a natural disaster, which may exterminate the last group. To counteract such an effect, scientists closely observe birds in decline to prevent the consequences.

Kress’ value for birds transcends out into the community. For the past 3 years, he has taught an eight week ornithology class, which meets throughout the week for lecture followed by field trips on the weekend. The class offers a chance to develop a greater understanding of birds in their habitat. Kress believes that, with increased public interest in birds, bird conservation will also improve.

Original Author: Caitlin Parker