In September of 2021, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the removal of twenty-three species from the Endangered Species Act or “ESA.” This was done due to the belief that each of these species are likely extinct or otherwise beyond recovery through conservation efforts. Of these twenty-three species, eleven were birds.
Why Should Assumed-Extinct Birds Be Removed from the Endangered Species Act?
The decision to remove these animals from the endangered species list is a fraught one. Emotions among birders run high when unconfirmed sightings of “extinct” birds are discussed. Many feel as though declaring a species as extinct is tantamount to giving up on them.
For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, though, the decision to remove these species was not made out of disregard for their survival. Removing a species from the endangered species list is a decision that is usually brought about by years of fruitlessly searching for evidence that the animal still persists. When no evidence is found, eventually the resources used for the conservation effort for a likely-extinct animal must be redistributed to all of the endangered species that we know are still around.
In essence, chasing the ghosts of extinct birds wastes resources that could be spent preserving species that, with a bit of effort, could still avoid the same fate.
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What are the Eleven Birds Declared Extinct in 2021?
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the most famous entry on this list by far. The so-called “Lord God” bird has earned its nickname from the apparent surprise and awe expressed by the witnesses who have claimed to spot it. Though many birders have claimed to have seen this large woodpecker over the years, the last credible sighting was in Louisiana in 1944. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are similar in appearance to the much more common Pileated Woodpecker. As such, many sightings have been debunked as lookalikes. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s decline can be blamed on habitat loss as these birds require large stretches of old-growth trees in order to survive.
The Bachman’s Warbler currently holds the title of the rarest songbird in the United States. As of the most recent proposal to delist this bird from the ESA, these birds are believed to have gone from rare to nonexistent. The Bachman’s Warbler first joined the Endangered Species Act in 1967. The last confirmed sighting of this minuscule yellow warbler occurred in 1988. Like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Warblers are a victim of habitat degradation.
Birds of Hawai’i and Guam:
The remaining nine birds that have been proposed for delisting are all species from the Pacific Islands; namely the state of Hawai’i and the U.S. territory of Guam. These include the Bridled White-eye, Kauai Akialoa, Kauai Nukupuu, Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, Large Kauai Thrush, Maui Akepa, Maui Nukupuʻu, Molokai Creeper, and Po`ouli.
The Pacific Islands currently have over six hundred and fifty organisms included within the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, Hawaiian birds are uniquely threatened by avian malaria spread by non-native mosquitos, habitat loss, and the introduction of cats to the islands. Cats are non-native predators which can have a devastating effect on bird populations when left unchecked.
Are They Really All Gone?
Spend enough time on a birdwatching forum and you’ll eventually hear whispers. People will claim to have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker with their own two eyes. Indignation often creeps into such conversations. The frustration of admitting defeat is palpable. Maybe this is because birdwatchers are such stubborn, patient folks. Few other hobbies include trudging through rough terrain and sitting around waiting for hours on end just to maybe see something that makes it all worthwhile. The unfortunate truth, however, is that despite all of these birdwatchers waiting, watching, and searching, these birds have remained unseen; year after year and decade after decade it has slowly begun to sink in that they just aren’t out there anymore.
Perhaps the truly difficult work of admitting defeat lies in the act of saying goodbye. If there are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers or Bachman’s Warblers alive somewhere, it remains true that unless we can locate them there is little we can do to rescue them from the brink. Our new goal should be to stop the circumstances that have brought about this loss. In our grief, we must honor these birds and atone for our role in making this planet inhospitable to them. Admitting defeat for the Bridled White-eye could be the step necessary for conserving the California Condor. May these eleven species be the last birds that we confine to the realm of myth and history.
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