Bird Study – Effect Of Forest Devastation

Only in a comparatively few cases has bird life suffered from the destruction of forests. In parts of the Middle West the Woodpeckers have no doubt decreased in numbers. There are places where one may travel for many miles without seeing a single grove in which these birds could live.

Passenger Pigeons as late as 1870 were frequently seen in enormous flocks. Their numbers during the periods of migration was one of the greatest ornithological wonders of the world. Now the birds are gone. What is supposed to have been the last one died in captivity in the Zoölogical Park of Cincinnati at 2 P. M. on the afternoon of September 1, 1914. Despite the generally accepted statement that these birds succumbed to the guns, snares, and nets of hunters, there is a second cause which doubt-less had its effect in hastening the disappearance of the species. The cutting away of vast forests where the birds were accustomed to gather and feed on mast greatly restricted their feeding range. They collected in enormous colonies for the purpose of rearing their young, and after the forests of the Northern States were so largely destroyed the birds seem to have been driven far up into Canada, quite beyond their usual breeding range. Here, as Forbush suggests, the summer probably was not sufficiently long to enable them to rear their young successfully.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest member of the Woodpecker family found in the United States, is now nearly extinct. There are some in the wilder regions of Florida, and a few in the swamps of upper Louisiana, but nowhere does the bird exist in numbers. It has been thought by some naturalists that the reduction of the forest areas was responsible for this bird’s disappearance, but it is hard to believe that this fact alone was sufficient to affect them so seriously, for the birds live mainly in swamps, and in our Southern States there are extensive lowland regions that remain practically untouched by the axeman. For some reason, however, the birds have been unable to withstand the advance of civilization, and like the Paroquet, the disappearance of which is almost equally difficult to explain, it will soon be numbered with the lengthening list of species that have passed away.

The Commercializing of Birds.—With the exceptions noted above the birds that have noticeably decreased in numbers in North America are those on whose heads a price has been set by the markets. Let a demand once arise for the bodies or the feathers of a species, and immediately a war is begun upon it that, unless speedily checked, spells disaster for the unfortunate bird.

The Labrador Duck and Others.—A hundred years ago the Labrador Duck, known to Audubon as the ” Pied Duck,” was abundant in the waters of the North Atlantic, and it was hunted and shot regularly in fall, winter, and spring, along the coast of New England and New York. Their breeding grounds were chiefly on the islands and along the shores of Labrador, as well as on the islands and mainland about the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Any one over forty years of age will remember how very popular feather beds used to be. In fact, there are those of us who know from experience that in many rural sections the deep feather bed is still regarded as the pièce de résistance of the careful householder’s equipment. There was a time when the domestic poultry of New England did not furnish as great a supply of feathers as was desired. Furthermore, ” Eider down” was recognized as the most desirable of all feathers for certain domestic uses.

A hundred and fifty years ago New England sea-faring men frequently fitted out vessels and sailed to the Labrador coast in summer on “feather-voyages.” The feathers sought were those of the Labrador Duck and the Eider. These adventurous bird pirates secured their booty either by killing the birds or taking the down from the nests. The commercializing of the Labrador Duck meant its undoing. The last one known to have been taken was killed by a hunter near Long Island, New York, in 1875. Forty-two of these birds only are preserved in the ornithological collections of the whole world.

Another species which succumbed to the persistent persecution of mankind was the Great Cormorant that at one time was extremely abundant in the northern Pacific and Bering Sea. They were killed for food by Indians, whalers, and others who visited the regions where the birds spend the summer. The Great Cormorant has been extinct in those waters since the year 185o.

Great Auks were once numbered literally by mil-lions in the North Atlantic. They were flightless and exceedingly fat. They were easily killed with clubs on the breeding rookeries, and provided an acceptable meat supply for fishermen and other toilers of the sea; also their feathers were sought. They were very common off Labrador and Newfoundland. Funk Island, especially, contained an enormous breeding colony.

For years fishermen going to the Banks in early summer depended on Auks for their meat supply. The birds probably bred as far south as Massachusetts, where it is known a great many were killed by Indians during certain seasons of the year. How-ever, it was the white man who brought ruin to this magnificent sea-fowl, for the savage Indians were too provident to exterminate any species of bird or animal. The Great Auk was last seen in America between 183o and 184o, and the final individual, so far as there is any positive record, was killed off Iceland in 1841. About eighty specimens of this bird, and seventy eggs, are preserved in the Natural History collections of the world.

The Trumpeter Swan and the Whooping Crane are nearly extinct today. Constant shooting and the extensive settling of the prairies of the Northwest have been the causes of their disappearance.

Diminution of Other Species.—Of the fifty-five kinds of Wild Ducks, Geese, and Swans commonly found in North America, there is probably not one as numerous today as it was a hundred or even fifty years ago. Why? The markets where their bodies commanded a price of so much per head have swallowed them up. The shotgun has also played havoc with the Prairie Chicken and the Sage Grouse. Of the former possibly as many as one thousand exist on the Heath Hen Reservation of Martha’s Vine-yard, Massachusetts, a pitiful remnant of the eastern form of the species. Even in the Prairie States wide ranges of country that formerly knew them by tens of thousands now know them no more.

We might go farther and note also the rapidly decreasing numbers of the Sandhill Crane and the Limpkin of Florida. They are being shot for food. The large White Egret, the Snowy Egret, and the Roseate Spoonbill are found in lessening numbers each year because they have been commercialized. There is a demand in the feather trade which can be met only by the use of their plumage, and as no profitable means has been devised for raising these birds in captivity the few remaining wild ones must be sacrificed, for from the standpoint of the killers it is better that a few men should become enriched by bird slaughter than that many people should derive pleasure from the birds which add so much beauty and interest to the landscape.