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The disappearance of birds signals trouble for the planet

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The fourth of April 1987 offered one of the most phenomenal opportunities for birders the Florida Suncoast has seen. An unexpected springtime storm, penetratingly cold, had driven long days of rain across the United States, flooding vast areas, toppling trees and inflicting grave damage upon the land and its people.

Far to the south, in the jungles of South America, on the warm hillsides of Mexico and in the meadows of Costa Rica, migrating birds had risen and begun their northward journey.

Across the Gulf of Mexico they came, millions of brilliantly colored warblers, seven kinds of swallows, grosbeaks and buntings, tanagers, orioles, thrushes, pewees, flycatchers and kingbirds.

And zillions of hummingbirds, the tiniest of creatures to brave the hazardous flight from Central America, or from as far as Colombia and Venezuela.

None of them would find rest for at least 500 miles; for some, it would be more than a thousand. But they streaked unerringly toward a destination they had no part in choosing, and they would know when they arrived that they were home.

Somewhere over the Gulf, the two great forces met, the homeward-bound birds and the unrelenting storm. The birds were swept eastward by the storm, away from their path until, tired, hungry, some broken-winged, all of them cold and wet, they made their first landfall in days and, gratefully, they settled upon it.

There they would rest and feed, to prepare for what still remained of their journey.

We found them on a bright Saturday morning at Fort De Soto Park, where the southern limit of Pinellas County reaches toward open water.

On Key Sainte Jean, four species of swallows swirled around our ankles, feeding on the insects stirred up by our walking. On Mullet Key, we were like children at a picnic in an acre of ruby-throated hummingbirds, more than anyone there had ever seen. The music and the color of vireos and warblers and buntings was delightful. We saw 53 species in all that day.

Three weeks later, the birds still were coming; on the 23rd we counted 67 species. That was what spring migration was supposed to be like, and what birders from across Florida and from other states had come to expect at Fort De Soto Park.

There has not been a year like that since. Reports of birders at the park this spring have been alarming. On a given day they may see three indigo buntings in the Australian pines on Mullet Key. A gray catbird at the mulberry tree. A merlin near the picnic area.

The absence of birds is a mystery; birders guess at the reasons, but the options are few.

Perhaps springtime's birds came, fed, rested and departed without the counters having seen them. Not likely; the counters are too watchful for their arrival.

Perhaps an absence of spring storms allowed the birds to fly past the feeding and resting grounds at Fort De Soto. To know that for a fact would offer hope for future years.

The watchers wonder if the destruction of South America's rainforests is, after all, causing a large-scale reduction of migratory birds, perhaps millions of individual birds and, ultimately, entire species.

They talk about whether global ills _ evidenced in the disappearing wetlands, the acid-rain-killed forests and the dried-up prairies of North America, where the birds go to reproduce _ are translating into massive population declines from that direction.

The watchers are hard put to accept a wait-and-see attitude, for the presence of birds is so much more than a temporary delight among enthusiasts. If birds, the most adaptable of creatures, are truly disappearing from the Western Hemisphere in great numbers, it is probably the clearest warning we can expect to receive of the overall poor health of the planet.

Mary Gentry of Largo is a past president of the Clearwater Audubon Society.