During the next two weeks, from Dec. 14, 2007, until Jan. 5, 2008, the Audubon Society will conduct the 108th annual Christmas Bird Count across the nation. Last year, nearly 70 million birds were counted by 58,000 volunteers, a record level of participation.

The tradition was founded on Christmas Day, 1900, when a small circle of bird lovers offered the bird count as an alternative to the “side hunt,” a Christmas Day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals.

The Audubon Society urges everyone to join. Experience is not required. Shotguns must be left at home, which may exclude quail hunter Dick Cheney.

“Each of the citizen scientists who braves snow, ice, wind or rain to take part in the Christmas Bird Count is making an enormous contribution to conservation,” said Geoff LeBaron, director of the program. “Counting is the first step in learning how environmental threats are affecting our birds — and in helping to protect them.”

Counting the birds may be a step toward counting tens of millions of votes next November electing a “bird- and environment-friendly” president, House and Senate.

Wild birds: classic canary in the coal mine

John Flicker, president of the Audubon Society, told a recent news conference that wild birds “are the classic canary in the coal mine,” and when these fine feathered friends are threatened, humanity too is at risk.

Flicker was one of several conservation leaders who joined in the Nov. 28 telephone news session to release Watchlist 2007 prepared jointly by the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). The report identifies 178 bird species in the continental U.S. and 39 species in Hawaii threatened with extinction. The People’s Weekly World participated in the telephone hookup.

Habitat loss puts birds at risk

“We care about birds and we care about the environment we share with them,” said Flicker, adding that 26 percent of the birds in the report are on the “Red List” facing “imminent risk of extinction.” The cause, he said, is habitat loss, including destruction of wetlands, competition with invasive species, real estate development, urban sprawl, oil and gas extraction, and global warming.

“For Watchlist birds, the clock is ticking,” he said. “We need to take action at every level to pull these species back from the brink of extinction.”

ABC President George Fenwick told the news conference, “We can do much more. Conserving birds should be nonpartisan.” What is needed, he added, is the establishment of more wild bird reserves and increased funding for the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. He also called for government action to curb climate change and the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Greg Butcher, director of Audubon’s Bird Conservation Program, said, “Human actions continue to put bird species and the environment we share with them in jeopardy.” He cited the Gunnison sage grouse, its range restricted to southwest Colorado and adjacent Utah; the lesser prairie chicken, its numbers dwindling in the Midwest and Southwest; and the reddish egret along the Gulf Coast. All will “will fade into extinction” without quick action to save them.

Politics of funding

Yet none of these birds has been given the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite determined efforts by bird lovers to convince the federal government to add them to the list.

“It’s astounding to us that several of these species are so close to the edge but haven’t even received Endangered Species Act protection,” Butcher said. “This list is a reminder that we need to act and act now. Unfortunately, there has been a complete halt to adding to the ESA list under the current administration.”

Butcher said petitions were submitted urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the Gunnison sage grouse to the ESA list. But the Bush administration “mistakenly” rejected the request. “Underfunding of the ESA blocks enforcement,” he added. “There just isn’t enough money to implement it.”

Scandals at Fish and Wildlife Service

A reporter asked about the scandals engulfing Julie A. MacDonald, President Bush’s choice to head the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was forced her to resign last April. “Corruption in the Department of the Interior may have contributed to this [sage grouse] decision,” replied David Pashley, ABC’s director of conservation programs.

He was referring to revelations that MacDonald rejected the findings of an Interior Department inspector general that the sage grouse be given ESA protection on grounds that their habitat was being destroyed in vast parts of the Rocky Mountain west by oil and gas drilling. Adding the sage grouse to the ESA list would have meant curtailing oil and gas corporations from drilling on federal lands. She leaked the inspector general’s internal document on the sage grouse to oil, gas and mining lobbyists.

In another case, MacDonald demanded that Fish and Wildlife scientists reduce the nesting range of the endangered Southwest willow flycatcher to a radius of 1.8 miles from their recommended 2.1 miles so that it would not cross into California where her husband has a ranch.

Twice MacDonald leaked internal documents on EPA water quality to individuals whose e-mail address ended in chevrontexaco.com.

She also leaked internal Fish and Wildlife documents to the rabidly right-wing, pro-oil, pro-mining, and pro-timber-cutting Pacific Legal Foundation, which has filed repeated lawsuits against the Endangered Species Act.

When she stepped down, Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Julie MacDonald’s reign of terror over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finally over. The Endangered Species Act and scientists everywhere are breathing a sigh of relief.”

But eight months after she was gone, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their oily cronies still stand in the way of protecting endangered wildlife.

Western mountain states face biggest threats

During the telephone news conference, a reporter from Billings, Mont., asked about the level of threat to birds in his region. Flicker replied that the “Inter-Mountain West is the most threatened region due to energy development. There is an exceptionally high correlation between gas development and loss of habitat with the sage grouse and other nesting birds at risk.”

Butcher added, “Looking closely at Colorado and Wyoming, where huge numbers of leases of oil and gas lands have been approved, nesting grounds are being extremely disrupted by oil and gas development.”

He added, “The entire rancher type of living is being threatened by excessive development.”

The speakers stressed that the refusal to enforce the ESA and fully fund federal conservation programs is especially tragic — or outrageous — because they have proven so effective.

There is good news

“The good news is that people can make a difference,” Butcher said. Several species granted ESA status “now show stabilizing or even increasing populations.” Pashley concurred, telling the reporters, “The Watchlist sounds a real warning but fortunately, when we put our minds and laws to it, as we did with the bald eagle, whooping crane, and California condor, we can make a difference.” All these birds are making a slow but steady recovery, although only the bald eagle is a candidate for removal from the ESA list.

This is the second grim report on the status of birds in 2007. Last June, Audubon released a report titled “Twenty Common Birds in Decline” showing that “some of America’s most familiar and beloved birds have taken a nosedive over the past 40 years, with some down as much as 80 percent. Overall, the 20 species’ populations have plummeted at least 54 percent since 1967.”

The list includes the northern bobwhite, evening grosbeak, common tern, eastern meadowlark, rufous hummingbird, whippoorwill, and little blue heron.

Bird watchers organize

This reporter asked the participants in the news conference if bird conservationists are attempting to make bird conservation an issue in the 2008 elections, to demand that presidential and congressional candidates spell out how they will save wild birds. Flicker replied that volunteer activists at the Audubon Society’s network of 500 local chapters “are showing up at town hall meetings to raise these issues all the way up to the federal level.” The society is sending organizers “around the country to mobilize people to create a sense of urgency on these issues.”

Greg Butcher said the number of bird watchers and bird lovers across the nation is between 40-60 million, more even than the membership of the AARP. “The bird conservation alliance has to get people who are about birds engaged in the political process,” he added.

Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @yahoo.com) is the national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo.