California Blackbirds Are Disappearing, Says Scientist


California is one of the many states in which blackbirds are found year round, though that might change, according to a recent study. Far from thriving, California’s blackbirds are disappearing says scientist (or rather ecologist) Bob Meese , the man who together with his team at University of California, Davis, conducted the study.

The study, which examined blackbird populations throughout the entire state, shows a steep decline in blackbird populations statewide. His data show that in some areas of California the blackbird’s numbers have declined dramatically, sometimes by around 64 percent in only six years.

The bird, whose loud cries were once very common in all parts of the state, has become a rare sight, though no one, not even Mr. Meese, knows exactly why. He does however, point to one development as a very likely culprit: habitat destruction. The blackbird lives and breeds inside of marshlands and other areas which are likely to contain large stands of cattails (its preferred nest-building material).

Unfortunately for the California’s blackbirds who a scientist and his team say are disappearing, those same areas are also prime real estate for agricultural development due to the high nutrient value of marshland soil, as well as its often favorable hydrological position within the landscape (i.e. water naturally flows through the area, often hanging around long enough to change the biogeochemistry of the soil).

California has a long tradition of “reclaiming” its wetland (areas such as marshes) by removing the native vegetation and altering the natural hydrological systems in order to transform what was naturally a wild area into agricultural land. In fact, according to Ducks Unlimited, the state has lost up to 95 percent of its natural wetlands since humans kept records of such things.

So perhaps those agricultural entities who are currently converting marshlands favored by the blackbird into farms and vineyards are simply under the impression that they are following tradition and that little harm can result from their activity. Certainly, as long as they possess the proper authorization from local and federal regulators, such activities are quiet legal. However legal their activities, it does not change the fact that California is currently suffering from an intense, almost six-month long drought which currently shows no signs of abating.

Considering that the main users (and abusers) of California’s limited water reserves are those agricultural entities who are most likely involved in the case of the disappearing blackbirds, further agricultural development should at least be given a second thought by state regulators.

Mr. Meese argues that the loss of the blackbird could also be tied to the possible overuse of pesticides in nearby farms and vineyards which in California, are located in relatively close proximity to one another. He says that the birds, which he describes as “natural insecticides,” require large amounts of insects in order to build up enough strength and nutrients to reproduce. However, when the overuse of insecticides sends local insect populations into a free fall, it seems likely that the blackbird populations, lacking the resources necessary to reproduce, would begin disappearing as well.

Although the study is merely a look at populations and theories regarding the decline says the scientist, it does raise many questions regarding California, its natural resources and the future of its mighty agricultural empire. The disappearing blackbirds might not necessarily harm the large farms and vineyards which already employ large amounts of pesticides to deal with crop devouring insects, but certainly any farmer that does not rely on such methods might suddenly find themselves exposed to insects which blackbirds had previously devoured before their disappearance.

If state officials do not heed the words of the scientist who says that California blackbirds are disappearing then it could create a very dangerous situation for any nation, state or consumer that relies on the many agricultural products produced by the state. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, produces nearly half of the United States’ vegetables and fruits, and at least 400 other agricultural products.

By Andrew Waddell

CBS News
California Department of Food and Agriculture
Black Bird Biology
Ducks Unlimited

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