Extinction Looms For Saltmarsh Sparrow, Several Other American Birds

Extinction is becoming increasingly likely for several species of American birds, according to a new report that focuses on declining avian populations in Connecticut.

"Many Connecticut birds are suffering slow, steady population declines caused by the loss of their specialized nesting areas," the Connecticut branch of the national Audubon Society announced in its annual Connecticut State of the Birds report for 2016.

This year's report, titled Gains, Losses, and the Prospect of Extinction, is the 11th from the Connecticut branch. It reviews the data from the 10 previous reports.

While the report acknowledged improvements in some regions among a few species, in general, the news was not good.

"Despite some improvements, most of the trends aren't good," said Milan G. Bull, Connecticut Audubon's senior director of science and conservation. "Marsh birds such as Clapper Rails and shrubland birds such as Blue-winged Warblers and Brown Thrashers continue to decline. And birds such as Piping Plovers are still highly vulnerable despite recent successes."

The most discouraging data involved the Saltmarsh Sparrow.

"Most disturbing though is the likely extinction of the Saltmarsh Sparrow because of sea level rise," Bull continued. "It would be the first avian extinction in the continental U.S. since the Heath Hen in 1931. There's no way to characterize that as anything but a disaster."

It should be noted that some might dispute Bull's claim that the extinction of the Saltmarsh Sparrow would mark the first "avian extinction" in the continental U.S. since the Heath Hen. The Dusky Seaside Sparrow, a subspecies of the Seaside Sparrow, was officially declared extinct in 1990 after the last known specimen died in 1987.

Beach erosion is a major threat to the Saltmarsh Sparrow and other birds that nest along coastlines. Loss of habitat was, in general, the most dire concern throughout the report.

"Shrubland species such as Field Sparrows, Brown Thrashers and Blue-winged Warblers continue to suffer population declines of about 5 percent a year," the report notes. "Those species can nest only in shrubby fields, which have been lost to lawns or allowed to grow into mature forests."

In some cases, efforts to save other endangered species by preserving or expanding their natural habitat has helped certain species of birds who share the same habitat thrive or maintain their population numbers.

"[E]fforts starting a decade ago to prevent the New England cottontail rabbit from being listed as a federally endangered species resulted in the creation of about 2,200 acres of additional shrub habitat in Connecticut alone, and many more throughout New England," the Connecticut Audubon Society reports. "The establishment of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, which was conceived of as a network of cottontail habitat throughout that animal's range, is likely to generate additional shrublands, all of which will also be prime nesting habitat for many of the shrubland birds whose populations are falling."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently lists nearly 100 species of birds as threatened or endangered.

As a Truthout report by Sharon Kelly published earlier this week notes, the oil and natural gas industries are another major threat to many endangered species of birds and other wildlife.

"Monarch butterflies, tiny lizards, and a type of grouse known as the lesser prairie chicken all drew close scrutiny from a large gathering of oil and gas executives at the Permian Basin Petroleum Association's annual meeting this year," Kelly writes. "Fracking has helped turn the Permian Basin into the nation's most productive oil field — and the only part of the U.S. where the oil industry continues to expand robustly despite a price slump that began in mid-2014."

The Permian Basin, however, is also home to several protected species. Situations like this have caused the oil and natural gas industries to begin pushing back against the Endangered Species Act.

"[O]ver the past few years, the oil and gas industry has ramped up its efforts to chip away at, de-fund, or even re-write the Endangered Species Act, a cornerstone of American environmental protections," says Kelly. "The recent election results may have sharply redefined the industry's prospects in Congress."

With the habitats of birds being threatened by natural causes like beach erosion, as well as manmade causes like the development of oil "well factories," conservationists — and the birds like the Saltmarsh Sparrow that they're struggling to protect — have a tough fight ahead of them.

[Featured Image by Mario Tama/Getty Images]