SciSun: A Matter of Black and White   Leave a comment

The Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) seems to be a contradiction in terms. Yes, it’s a blackbird – but displays three distinct colors, not just black.  And that’s just for the male.  Of course ‘Three Colored Bird’, while more descriptive, isn’t quite as snappy a name. But memorable name or not, this once familiar bird – for generations numbering in the millions throughout much of the Central Valleys of California and Oregon – was just last week placed, as an emergency measure, on the California endangered species list with only 145,000 individuals remaining. And it looks like it might not be predators or disease or even climate that’s causing this decline, but a far more simple issue that’s an everyday part of our own breakfasts and snacks.

Despite the nursery rhyme about blackbird pie, as far as we know humans have never relied on these moderately-sized birds for food (and in the end of that tale, one of the birds gets even, so there). But human history shows when the wants and needs of humans come into conflict with the natural world, it’s usually the wildlife and environment that end up losing. In the 1800’s Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) by the billions were common within much of America; by the early 1900’s they were extinct due to hunting, deforestation, and extermination as ‘pests’. While Tricolor isn’t being specifically targeted (as far as we know), it does have two things going against it in the struggle between the natural, and man-made world: First, it very closely resembles the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), a far more common bird that ranges throughout much of North America and into Central America. While both appear similar (the males, at least – females are a more conservative grey and brown) and can sometimes be found together, the colors of Red-wing are less vibrant, and when comparing the two birds it’s not always easy to tell them apart. Unfortunately Red-wing has a bad reputation of flocking into fields by the thousands, each bird eating all the grain it can plus some to spare – the birds have the ability (or habit) of continually eating more to keep pace with other surrounding birds. (Check out peoples behavior at a crowded buffet). Not to mention some other questionable behavior like eating competing birds eggs. So farmers will take any steps possible to keep these avaricious avians from their fields – and in the process, could be disturbing or harming Tricolor as well.

Note the males' lustrous black plumage, brilliant red and sparkling white shoulder badges….

Note the males’ lustrous black plumage, brilliant red and sparkling white shoulder badges….

The second challenge Tricolor faces is its choice of home and nesting sites. Historically flocks of 50,000 or more would find a pleasant-looking field – often surrounded by water or even marshy ground above water – and settle in for the season, content to eat grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders and beetles supplemented by seeds and grains (it’s always a good idea to eat balanced meals). The following years, another field would be chosen, and so on each year, so one area isn’t over-burdened and has time to recover from the 50,000 un-announced guests. But as human needs grew and agriculture expanded, natural open fields, marshy wetlands and even complex ecosystems containing multiple species of plants and animals disappeared, replaced with carefully managed single-crop fields and water channeled, diverted, and rationed. In the central valleys of California many of these fields are devoted to growing food for cattle – specifically a wheat–rye hybrid called triticale – for the contented California cows that produce the wholesome white milk, butter and cheese we all enjoy. By an inconvenient coincidence, prime triticale harvest falls exactly at the same time young birds are fledgling – just growing flight feathers in preparation to leave the nest – and in the harvest, tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of nests are destroyed and chicks killed.

...and the overall mottled grey and brown of the female.

…and the overall mottled grey and brown of the female. Grey is the new black!

While all migratory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty, and by and large most farmers do what they can to keep from harming Tricolor and other beneficial birds, it’s impossible to watch for every bird; the chicks, unable to fly, are literally sitting targets; and the nests, understandably, are purposely camouflaged to be hidden from predators – and tractors. Farmers argue triticale declines in quality and nutritional value if it’s left sitting in the field too long and waiting until the chicks leave the nest may be too late for the grain. So what could be a simple matter of watch and wait, has become an ironic, and possibly tragic, standoff between farmers providing food for dairy cows; and the birds that keep the triticale free of insect pests.

While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established a program to financially help farmers who might loose money by letting their crops sit a few more weeks, that doesn’t solve the problem of hungry waiting cows. Or the concern of the rapidly declining Tricolor population, known to scientists since 2004 and now in, literally, an emergency situation. So wile we all have to eat – humans and cows and Tricolored Blackbirds and every other species – it’s important that all of us make good choices of what we eat, and where it comes from, and how it might effect those up and down the food chain. Sometimes it’s as simple as black and white.


Michonne Says: Marmots only eat flowers and grass and sometimes leaves and berries if we can find them and just before the cold-time there might be fruit on the ground or seeds. That’s all. And birds and rabbits and prickly-pines and deers and even sometimes bears and fuzzy-stripe-tail racoons eat those too so there should be enough for everyone. If there’s not that means someone is taking too much and that’s greedy and not very nice.

Posted December 7, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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