Top 10 Birds of the Decade

2009 December 15
by David J. Ringer

Birds fascinate us. Beautiful, highly visible denizens of this planet, they tell us about the larger world, and they even reveal our own character and foibles as they go about their lives.

And so, I think it’s only fitting that as we look back on the decade without a name, we do so by looking at birds. Here are my picks for the decade’s top 10 birds:

10. Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguins by Martha de Jong-Lantink

This decade saw the release of two Oscar-winning films featuring the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri): La marche de l’empereur (March of the Penguins) (2005) and Happy Feet (2006). The popularity of penguins sparked a marketing frenzy (remember this?); The New York Times declared 2007 “the year of the penguin, at least on Madison Avenue.” The craze fed on our primal reactions to cuteness, our unease over threats to remote and vulnerable ecosystems (this was the decade in which we began seriously considering the effects of climate change on bird populations), and our strong desire to see ourselves everywhere we look. “In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way,” was the English tag line for “March of the Penguins,” and “Happy Feet” was thinly veiled social commentary: people in penguin suits. Perhaps we can learn important lessons from nature, but if we look at penguins and see nothing but ourselves, something is horribly wrong. We share this planet with a tremendous variety of other life, and while we do all share varying degrees of similarity, we are also fundamentally alien to each other. I’m afraid the import and wonder of that reality was lost on most people during the penguin fad.

9. Domestic Chicken

chickens

Domestic chickens in China by DCvision2006

In 2001, Hong Kong slaughtered all its domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) — more than a million — in attempt to halt a new outbreak of H5N1 (avian flu or bird flu), which had in 1997 made a brief but terrifying and deadly jump from chickens to people. But the virus didn’t disappear. It exploded across Asia, and by 2004, tens of millions of chickens and other poultry had either died from the disease or been killed in panicked and gruesome mass culls. Four people died in 2003, and 43 died in 2005. Dark fears of pandemic took hold as the virus spread in migratory bird populations, jumped to various mammals, and spread to Europe and Africa by 2006. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people (3 percent of the world’s population at the time), and if this virus or another mutates to become readily transmissible among humans, that horror could be repeated. Outbreaks and human deaths continue as feverish research efforts seek solutions before a nightmare begins.

8. Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by TailspinT

Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) pairs nesting in the United States’ 48 contiguous states increased by more than 50 percent, reaching 9,789 pairs. After reaching a low of 487 breeding pairs in 48 contiguous states, populations began to recover in the ’60s and ’70s in response to bans on DDT, hunting, and disturbance coupled with habitat protection and reintroduction programs. In 2007, the species was removed from the U.S. federal government’s threatened and endangered species list (though the small Sonoran Desert population was later relisted as threatened). This widely hailed and deeply symbolic recovery gave us hope that decisive action based on solid science really can turn the tide for some species — at least when public support is strong and a viable population still exists in part of the species’ former range. Many endangered species don’t have either of those luxuries, but let’s be thankful that the Bald Eagle does.

7. Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx by Ryan Somma

Archaeopteryx (Archaeopteryx lithographica) got plutoed this decade along with, well, Pluto. When Archaeopteryx was discovered in the 1860s, it was dazzlingly unique. At the time, and for a long time after, no one knew of feathers on any creature other than modern birds. Archaeopteryx has long been enshrined as the “first bird,” the basal member of the clade Aves, but in the last 10 years, a dizzying spate of paleontological discoveries has shown us something amazing, if not entirely unexpected: Archaeopteryx — spectacular as it is — is not all that special, and it may not even deserve the “first bird” title. Researchers found increasing numbers of new, feathered dinosaurs as the decade progressed, and conclusive evidence emerged that certain previously known dinosaurs were also feathered. Velociraptor got a makeover in 2007; if “Jurassic Park” were made today, the raptors would have to have feathers! Microraptor and the Jurassic Anchiornis were very significant new discoveries; meanwhile, a 2009 examination of Archaeopteryx‘s bone structure revealed that it grew slowly like other feathered dinosaurs, not rapidly like modern birds. What does all this mean? It means it’s a whole lot harder to draw the line between dinosaurs and birds. It seems we need to define “bird” either more broadly or more narrowly, but either way, Archaeopteryx stands to lose its special status as “first bird.” Sorry, little guy. We’ll love you anyway.

6. Madagascar Pochard

Madagascar Pochard

Madagascar Pochard courtesy The Peregrine Fund

The Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata) — a shy duck endemic to Madagascar’s freshwater wetlands — was feared extinct when the last known bird died in 1991, but a dramatic rediscovery of a tiny remnant population in 2006 gave us a second chance to save this species, which was nearly wiped out in the 20th century as humans destroyed its habitat and introduced harmful nonnative species. Today, fewer than 30 Madagascar Pochards are known to exist, but that’s a whole lot better than none. Second chances to save a species don’t come around very often, so let’s hope the most is made of this one.

5. Yellow-bellied Fantail

Yellow-bellied Fantail

Yellow-bellied Fantail by Mike in Thailand

This was the decade when genetic analysis came into its own. The pretty but unassuming Asian Yellow-bellied Fantail (Chelidorhynx hypoxantha) is a poster child for the taxonomic upheaval sparked by genetic studies. In 2009, one such study indicated that the Yellow-bellied Fantail wasn’t anything like the other fantails (Rhipidura) but instead belongs to the Stenostiridae — a new family apparently not even conceived of until the mid-2000s. Based on genetic evidence, Stenostiridae unites a small group of Afrotropical and Indo-Malayan species that had been bounced around in disparate sections of the passerine tree. No one had suspected they were connected. The new family lies near chickadees and tits (Paridae), another surprise. Yellow-bellied Fantail is a latecomer to the new family, and other species may turn out to belong there as well. And while we’re on the subject, I can’t fail to mention the creation of the Mohoidae in 2008. This brand new family contains five species — all extinct — of the Hawaiian Islands. They had previously been assigned to the Australasian honeyeater family (Meliphagidae) based on remarkable morphological similarities, but shocking results of a genetic study placed them near the waxwings and silky-flycatchers instead. One thing is clear as we begin a new decade of study and analysis: Many more surprises await!

4. Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Spoon-billed Sandpiper by nkenji

Over the last 10 years, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) has continued its precipitous decline and is now thought to number fewer than 300 pairs — perhaps only 10 to 15 percent of the population at the beginning of the decade. The species migrates between its breeding grounds on the eastern Russian tundra and its wintering grounds in south and southeast Asia. Its decline is caused by human disturbance including hunting and egg harvest and by human destruction of the tidal flats on which it feeds during migration and winter. Nations like South Korea chose to continue destroying vital Spoon-billed Sandpiper habitat as the decade wore on, despite mounting evidence of the bird’s plight. We’ve only just learned what its unique bill is for, but that may be one of the last things we learn about this species. With a decline so severe and unchecked, it is far from certain whether the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will still exist at the end of the next decade. And it’s just one example, of course. As the decade ends, more bird species than ever are in serious trouble — and a lot of that is our fault.

3. Nonggang Babbler

Nonggang Babbler

Nonggang Babbler by Risso Romain

In 2004, Chinese ornithologists Zhou Fang and Jiang Aiwu encountered an unknown bird in southern China. They began to study it and in 2008 announced that it was a species new to science, the Nonggang Babbler (Stachyris nonggangensis). Many new bird species are split from known species or are overlooked for a time because of their similarity to other species. Others are phantoms — observed and partially described over a period of years or decades before full confirmation is achieved. A relatively small number really are brand new to science and were discovered and described entirely within this decade. The Nonggang Babbler is one. Given that, and the fact that the rise of China is the biggest news story of the decade, the babbler certainly merits a spot in the top ten, but other novel discoveries made during the decade included Calayan Rail (Gallirallus calayanensis), Wattled Smoky Honeyeater (Melipotes carolae), and Gorgeted Puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae).

2. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by John James Audubon

April 2005′s announcement that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) lived on in the Big Woods of Arkansas — 60 years after the last confirmed sighting in North America — sent shock waves through the birding world, and through a good many other sectors. A mania took hold as the saga unfolded. Expeditions were mounted, careers were made and ended, economies boomed and busted, rebuttals were themselves rebutted, copycat sightings flourished, book deals were made, millions of dollars were allocated and spent, and all the while bloggers and commentators screamed into the void. (A BirdForum thread on the topic collected over 14,000 comments and 1,000,000 views between May 2005 and December 2009.) It was all in the name of science and conservation, or so we were told. The cynical among us wondered. I wrote most of it off as hysteria and sophistry, until a conversation with one of the original observers stopped me in my tracks. But now, as the decade ends, we have not a scrap of incontrovertible evidence to support claims that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker survived the rape of America’s great bottomland hardwood forests. Whether or not the bird does live on, we have proved one thing: We have great capacity for hope — but also great capacity for self-delusion.

1. Poʻouli

Po'ouli

Poʻouli by Paul E. Baker/USFWS

As the new millennium dawned, the Poʻouli or Black-faced Honeycreeper (Melamprosops phaeosoma) was one of the rarest birds in the world. Not even discovered until 1973, this native of Maui, Hawaii, represented a unique lineage within the Hawaiian honeycreeper assemblage. Nonnative animals and avian malaria, all of which were introduced by humans, hammered the tiny population, which declined catastrophically. By 2002, the known number of individuals had dropped to three — yes, only three. Efforts to move a female into a male’s territory failed; the female returned to her home territory alone. In a last ditch effort, one bird was taken into captivity in 2004. The plan was to begin a captive breeding program, but it was too late. The other birds had disappeared, and on November 26, 2004, the lone captive bird died. The Poʻouli was never seen again. Hawaii still has a few remote, rugged corners, and no one can say for certain that Poʻoulis aren’t hanging on somewhere. But November 26, 2004, appears to be the day a species died.

Backwards and forwards

A decade of birds. Highs, lows, discoveries, mysteries. Some lessons learned, others not learned well enough. Wonder. Fear. Joy. Life finding a way.

What birds do you see as you look back across the decade? What birds do you see as you turn and look ahead?

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Laurie Foss permalink
    December 17, 2009

    My vote would be to include the Carolina Parkakeet, another species long thought extinct but rediscovered in South America. Hope is the thing with feathers.

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      December 17, 2009

      Unfortunately, the announcement was an April Fool’s Day hoax! But it would indeed have been spectacular if true….

  2. December 17, 2009

    if the Ivory-bill is ever verified (and I still suspect it will be eventually), it will by then be, not just a bird of the decade, but THE bird of the last century… and if it is never verified it will go down as the greatest ornithological delusion of the century… if not of all time.

    Looking back over the decade I think efforts taken to conserve several psittacine species deserve some recognition; also find it interesting (and hopeful) how many books have been published over that time on corvids and their intelligence; looking ahead, I think the future is bleak for virtually all species of wood warblers. :-(

  3. January 2, 2010

    David

    I can’t believe I have not commented this blog post yet. This is by far the best of top-10-end-of-decade blogs I have seen. Tip of hat! Well done!

    Gunnar

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