Cerulean warblers spend their lives in the treetops of the Appalachian Mountains and South America. Deforestation threatens their existence, and is a factor in climate change. Photo: Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The forests of West Virginia are home to the breeding grounds for the cerulean warbler, a bright blue songbird famous for its distinctive call.
Unfortunately for the cerulean warbler, those same West Virginia forests are also home to coal mining operations, including mountaintop mining. That’s the practice of cutting down forests, then removing the ridge-tops to access underlying supplies of coal. The practice removes the ridge-tops preferred by the cerulean warbler, and inhibits new tree growth for decades, if not centuries. It’s a factor in the species’ decline, which has a population that’s roughly one-third of what it was 40 years ago.
On a much larger scale, scientists say that mountaintop mining for coal is accelerating climate change in two ways: It removes trees that would otherwise soak up carbon dioxide, and it facilitates the burning of coal to produce electricity, one of the main ways carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that is changing the Earth’s climate.
View of a typical mountaintop mining operation to extract coal. Burning coal to produce electricity is a major source of heat-trapping gases contributing to climate change. Photo: Keith Weaver/USFWS.
The cerulean warbler’s connections to accelerating climate change don’t end there. The small bird, colored in sky-blue for males and blue-green for females, is also losing habitat in its wintering shelters of South America. From October to March, the entire population inhabits the evergreen forests in the northern Andes Mountains in Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. Here, much of the habitat lost has been due to agriculture and the world’s love affair with coffee.
To meet the world demand for coffee, some growers are converting shade-coffee plantations – which provide canopies needed by the cerulean warbler – to sun-grown coffee crops, which produce a higher yield. The birds feed on insects in tree canopies.
|Overlay of coal fields and cerulean warbler breeding habitat. According to A State ofKnowledge Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, deforestation contributes 20percent of manmade carbon dioxide emissions.Credit: USFWS|
|Shade-grown coffee plantation in Columbia. Cerulean warblers spend the winter in thetreetops of South America.Credit: USFWS|
Fortunately, there are efforts underway on both hemispheres to try and combat the effects of deforestation and loss of habitat that affect the cerulean warbler and other forest inhabitants. The coffee and coal industries are working with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups as part of a Cerulean Warbler Technical Group to try and reverse the population declines by strategically conserving and restoring forest habitat on breeding and non-breeding grounds in a coordinated manner. The group is providing scientific-based recommendations to industries, land managers and private landowners on how to improve forestlands for cerulean warblers and other song birds.
The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), a coalition of stakeholders and volunteers, has planted more than 60 million trees on reclaimed coal-mined lands in Appalachia. The goal is, over the next couple of decades, to return these reclaimed mined lands to healthy, functioning forests that provide habitat, clean air and water, a reliable wood supply, and also help reduce global warming.
In South America, the Service has joined conservation groups including Fundación ProAves, in an effort to promote shade-grown coffee. Efforts include encouraging farmers to grow more certified shade-grown crops, and encouraging consumers to shop for Bird Friendly Coffee®, which has been certified as 100% organic and shade-grown. The partnership also hopes to establish carbon sequestration programs to allow industries from afar to earn credit for supporting reforestation in South America.
The hope is that this unique partnership of conservation organizations and two of the largest global economic industries can work together to keep the cerulean warbler off the endangered species list and that its song may be heard long into the future.
A day for the birds
International Migratory Bird Day, observed the second Saturday each May, is a worldwide celebration of migratory bird conservation. IMBD was established to focus attention on the marvelous journey that cerulean warblers and other migratory birds make between their wintering and breeding grounds every year. In addition to being welcome harbingers of spring, migratory birds are an important economic resource, controlling insect pests and generating billions in recreational dollars.
Go Wild, Go Birding! is the IMBD theme for 2011, highlighting recreational activities and the encouraging people of all ages to become involved in bird conservation. Citizens who are passionate about birds and interested in becoming involved can make a huge difference.
Authors: Debra Reynolds and Frank Wolff
- Randy Dettmers, 413-253-8567, Randy_Dettmers@fws.gov
- Terri Edwards, 413-253-8324, Terri_Edwards@fws.gov