Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

The sixth extinction belongs to us

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: April 19, 2014 - 12:12 AM

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 319 pages with index, with charts and illustrations, $28.

Extinction occurs so slowly we rarely know it’s happening. A pigeon here, a woodpecker (maybe) there, a near-miss with a condor. We are, however, 200,000 years into an extinction event that likely will change everything we know about life on earth. Recognized or not, it is a mass extinction, the sixth extinction, and it belongs to us.

“The Sixth Extinction,” a book by Elizabeth Kolbert,  briefly explains the five previous mass extinctions on earth and their causes. The sixth extinction, examined in detail, not so coincidentally began at the time humans began to migrate out of Africa, Kolbert says. This extinction is moving at a pace far exceeding geologic time scale. She calls it the Anthropocene extinction. Anthro comes from the Greek word for humans.

Kolbert is an excellent writer, clear with facts, and with a sense of humor, not that this is a humorous topic. The stories she offers as examples of what is happening to us are well chosen and crisply written. The topic is important to us even though the ending will not be known for hundreds of thousands of years. It looks to be tough going between now and then.

The five pervious mass extinctions each ended a geological era, from the Ordovician, 444 million years ago to the Cretaceous, “only” 60 million years behind us. The latter is attributed to a huge astroid that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, ending dinosaurs and about 75 percent of all life on the planet. 

The collision produced what Kolbert calls “a vast cloud of searing vapor and debris that raced over the continent, expanding as it moved, and incinerating everything in its path.” How hot? How fast? Kolbert quotes a geologist’s explanation: “Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta you had about two minutes before you were vaporized.”

Not all extinction events have such profound and immediate affect. They usually are measured in geologic time. The one we’re living through will be so, but has a local pace that can be breathtaking.

Kolbert tells her story by visiting 13 of those local places. She tells the story of how a particular creature disappeared forever. 

For example, amphibians. They are the world’s most endangered class of animals, Kolbert says. The background rate of extinction, that which happens in the course of time, is probably about one amphibian species in a thousand years, according to educated estimates. A more exact number is not available because frogs and their relatives are not built to leave fossil remains.

No one is going to actually witness that once-in-a-thousand-years extinction. Today, however, “Pretty much every herpetologist working out in the field has observed several extinctions,” she writes.

Kolbert says that in the course of writing this book, she encountered one frog species that has since gone extinct, and three or four others now extinct in the wild. It is not just herps. Every living thing is under this pressure to some degree. Things that we have yet to name are going extinct.

You know what’s happening. It’s land use and chemicals and weather change. It’s us. It can be as simple as cutting a road through a forest. 

Kolbert writes of an on-going habitat experiment named the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragmentation Project. Among its findings are the behaviors of two South American bird species. White-crowned Manakins cross roads at will. The Scale-backed Antbird, however, is very reluctant to do so. A new road, then, can reduce the readily used territory for that bird. With enough roads that bird eventually can be reduced to nowhere to live and nothing to eat.

We’re cutting the world into ever-smaller pieces, among the long list of other things we’re doing. You might wonder if any bird species nesting in Minnesota reacts to highways, roads, and driveways in this fashion. If so, we most likely will know when it’s too late to do much about it. 

Can we stop what we are doing to our planet? Can we even slow the Anthropocene extinction? It doesn’t seem so today, does it? We will, however, get to watch it happen. We have front-row seats at the disaster movie in which we star.

Baiting owls would be illegal

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: April 15, 2014 - 5:16 PM

The harassment a handful of photographers visited upon Snowy Owls here this winter has made it into a bill being considered by the legislature. A few photographers working in the the city of Ramsey and in Dakota County lured owls close for photographs by using live or fake mice. This caught the attention of officials at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. An amendment to the omnibus DNR bill before the legislature would make it a petty misdemeanor punishable by a $300 fine to visually lure an owl in the wild.

White-winged Scoter being seen near downtown

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification, Bird sightings Updated: April 10, 2014 - 4:42 PM

A White-winged Scoter is being seen near the east end of Boom Island, which is at the west end of Nicollet Island near downtown Minneapolis. This species is regular in Minnesota during migration, but most often along the North Shore. It is unusual to have one mid-city, particularly one so loyal to a single location. It has been seen in or near this location for several days. Best viewing is from Boom Island. Enter the park from Sibley Avenue and drive to the far end (Washington Avenue east from downtown, left turn on Plymouth, right turn onto Sibley Street NE). A short walk will take you to the river bank. Check water near the channel between the islands. White-winged Scoters breed from central Canada northwest into the interior of Alaska. They winter along both coasts. The bird has been identified by staff at Audubon Minnesota as a female hatched in the spring of 2013.

Ramsey most recently in southwest Minnesota

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 7, 2014 - 9:12 PM

Ramsey, the Snowy Owl named for its winter location in the City of Ramsey north of Minneapolis, most recently was reported from a location in southwestern Minnesota. The owl is carrying a small transmitter that sends location information via cell-phone towers. It had not been heard from for several days, apparently out of cell range. From Ramsey, about three weeks ago, the bird had moved to a point four miles south of Hutchinson. It should soon begin return to its northern-Canada home territory.

Burrowing Owl, almost in Minnesota

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 5, 2014 - 10:40 PM

Driving around western Minnesota Saturday, Jude and I found a Burrowing Owl 12 feet west of the Minnesota state line, at the edge of a South Dakota farm field. The owl was next to a burrow. This species is rarely seen in Minnesota, and equally rarely ever seen close but not quite. We have photos to be posted tomorrow, Sunday. 

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