This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Thanksgiving
Science Talk

For the Birds: A look at birds, habitat conservation and environmental economics

Ornithologist and conservation biologist Jeffrey Wells talks about birds and their roles as markers for environmental health. He also discusses the Boreal Forest, the Boreal Birdsong Initiative, the eBird research project (that you can assist) and his new book, The Birder's Conservation Handbook. We also have a brief tribute to the late Arthur C. Clarke. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;

Ornithologist and conservation biologist Jeffrey Wells talks about birds and their roles as markers for environmental health. He also discusses the Boreal Forest, the Boreal Birdsong Initiative, the eBird research project (that you can assist) and his new book, The Birder's Conservation Handbook. We also have a brief tribute to the late Arthur C. Clarke. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;

Podcast Transcript:

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting March 19th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week's episode is for the birds. We'll talk to Jeff Wells, senior scientist for the Boreal Birdsong Initiative. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Jeff Wells is a leading conservation biologist and bird expert. He was formally at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and was the Audubon Society's national conservation director and he is the author of the just-published Birder's Conservation Handbook. We talked about birds, habitat conservation and environmental economics in one of the world's great bird-watching sights.

Steve: Dr. Wells, great to talk to you.

Wells: Thanks Steve. It's great to be here.

Steve: And here is Central Park. Why don't we spend just a minute talking about Central Park and its role in the world of birds?

Wells: Sure, yes. Central Park is actually considered an important bird area by the National Audubon Society. It's an oasis of green island in this urban sea around us and because of that, birds, especially on migration, are drawn to it. It's one of the few places where they can descend from nocturnal migration and come down and find a safe haven to feed and rest before they move on. Often times, you can just see 50 to 70 species here in a morning, maybe more, you know, during the height of migration and I've been here where there's been thousands of white-throated sparrows, for example, just passing through the tree tops on a spring morning, you know, really important.

Steve: Let's talk about your—there are two things we're going to talk about, the boreal forest which, I have to be honest with you, I had never heard of before I started talking to you and your people and also you have a new book out. So, let's start with the boreal forest, which is, I don't know how I missed it because it's pretty big.

Wells: It's pretty big, yeah. Actually the North American boreal is about 1.6 billion acres, extends from interior Alaska across Canada all the way to Newfoundland to the Atlantic side. It's one of the largest intact forest ecosystems left on Earth; it's actually only three or four places that have these large unfragmented habitats left and because of that it holds some of the largest populations of mammals and birds—some of the largest populations of wolves, for example, in ,caribou as well as, we estimate one to three billion birds that nest there every year and that's some of the birds that are actually stopping off at Central Park. There's going to be something like 10 to 30 million birds a night passing across the U.S.–Canadian border on their way north everyday from now until early June. Most of these birds [are] migrating at night and so, you know, people often miss this, this great migration, just the incredible flood of birds that are heading north right now to the boreal.

Steve: These birds tend to winter down in the warm south.

Wells: That's right.

Steve: Or through the south in the southern U.S., even it might be in the Caribbean or South America and they'll go over back up to Canada.

Wells: Most of the birds that breed in the boreal actually come down into the U.S., Central America or South America to winter—about a billion of them, we think, winter in the United States and then another two-plus billion go into the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

Steve: Why are we so interested in the boreal forest? I mean, let's talk turkey, so to speak. What does the boreal forest do for us because a lot of people… frankly, I mean, I love birds, but a lot of people just aren't that interested in birds—they say "Oh, birds are nice, but what does that mean to me as a human?" So what is the boreal forest doing for us?

Wells: Well, along with being this incredible exporter of birds, basically, you know, making sure that every backyard has a white-throated sparrow and a junco every year, it's also important as a place that provides incredible ecosystem services, for example, just billions of dollars worth of ecosystem services in maintaining clean water and clean air and as a shield against global warming. There's actually 27 years worth of the annual industrial emissions of CO2 stored in the soils and permafrost in peat of the boreal forest. So, a whole host of conservation values that people hold dear.

Steve: You talked about the economics of it. This is a relatively new field. I know Dave Pimentel at Cornell has been trying to categorize this for a while, but this idea of actually assigning economic values to things that are usually left out of economic equations, like the cost of cleaning water, you know, so do you want to talk about that a little bit more.

Wells: Yeah. We've had some people who have worked on looking at the ecosystem services like cleaning water and things like that, the importance of the economic value of the carbon stored there, the economic value of the fish and wildlife and birds that are there and actually put together an assessment of all the so-called natural capital of the boreal forest and it turns out that if you compare that to what you could take out in traditional means by cutting the trees down and taking the oil and gas out, the natural capital values are worth about at least three times more than the industrial extraction values. The difference is that, yeah, in the one case the economic values go to a small segment of people and in the other case it's shared by all of us. The natural capital values are something that we all share and eventually society has to pay those values and it's spread all around. In the other case, you know, the folks, the industry doing the extraction, gets to take the capital out.

Steve: How do we get this idea across to people? I mean, still, it's not really, I don't think, appreciated that there is an economic value in natural environments that is maintained by just leaving them alone.

Wells: Well, I think that, I mean, increasingly in places like New York, say where we're seeing the degradation of the environment and you know, the fragmentation and all the issues, you know, we are actually starting to see where you have to actually pay for clean water. In New York's case, you know, they looked at the options for maintaining clean water of either building a whole bunch of plants to clean the water or protecting forests in the Catskills where their water comes from, and it turned out that it was actually more economical to protect those forests to maintain that water. You know, when you start getting right down to the situation, where you got to make that decision, you find out that, you know, you are actually putting a price tag on it that's going to come out of people's pockets and when you start doing that, I think, you start to see more realization of the values of keeping ecosystems intact and we hope that as people become more aware that in places like New York, where the issues have come up that it will help to make folks understand in places like the boreal or places where there's still intact ecosystems or what those values really are.

Steve: And the big threat to the North American boreal is the…?

Wells: Well, there is [are] a few different categories of threats right now. Oil and gas is one major one and especially in the western boreal forest, the world's second largest oil deposit is in the boreal forest in the Alberta Tar Sands. I mean, it's an area of about 35 million acres—about the size of Florida—that is going to be mined and crisscrossed with a spider web of pipelines and roads to get the oil out of there and that's going to be something that's going to impact… probably cause the loss of tens of millions of birds. We're still trying to do some of the modeling to assess that, but we're talking about major impacts on birds. Forestry is another major driver of change in the boreal. There is something like two million acres cut annually, mostly just for paper products that are thrown away in the U.S.—tissue paper, paper towels, mailing, catalogues, things like that.

Steve: Was it something like 59 catalogues for every American every year? I think I saw that in the book.

Wells: Yeah. It's an astounding number, you know, there is just one single company that mails a million catalogues a day, you know, the number of catalogues, I looked at some of the numbers recently and the number of catalogues mailed in a couple of days is more than the entire global populations of some of the birds in the nest of the boreal—kind of a funny contrast there.

Steve: Yeah.

Wells: There is [are] some other factors and other issues impacting the boreal. Mining is another big issue that is impacting the boreal. There is uranium mining and diamond mining and a whole host of other kinds of mines. Hydropower is another major impact; there are millions of acres that have been flooded already for hydropower and more on the way.

Steve: Oddly, logging is not really that big of a deal, isn't it, compared to the others?

Wells: Well, logging—in the southern boreal forest, approximately 70-plus percent of the forest has already been allocated to forestry. It hasn't all been cut, but some of the leases for single companies or the size of the New York State. So, it is going to be the driver in the future over the next 50 to 100 years. How forestry is done on the landscape will be the deciding factor for many birds. There is a whole host of birds that actually only occur in that southern boreal forest or most of their populations occur there. So, for those birds, you know, their fate lies in the hands of how forestry management plays out over the next decades.

Steve: For the last, what, about four years, you've been working on this books that's now come out, the Birder's Conservation Handbook. Talk about the place of this book. One of the things the book notes is that it's meant to be portable and leafed through and covered with coffee stains.

Wells: Exactly, and mine already is. The idea with the book was that it was something you didn't have to sit down and read cover to cover if you didn't want to, you could just open it up, the way birders like to open up a field guide. You could just pick it up and read about the bird that you wanted to hear about and every time you did that, you'll get a lesson in conservation really about what factors are impacting the birds that you are concerned about. Where do they spend their winters and their summers? What can you do to help? That's the other part that's really exciting. I really tried to make sure I highlighted these positive conservation models that are actually helping birds. You know, one of the reasons I did the book was, there this a paradox out there. There's something like 80 million people in the U.S. according the recent surveys that are interested in birds in one way or another, you know, feed birds or watch birds, take their kids to a wildlife refuge and yet we keep hearing about more and more reports of declines in birds, you know, doubling of the extinction rates in birds globally in the last 50 years and right now we are on the verge of what I call the third renaissance of bird conservation, first being the Audubon movement at the turn of the century, the second being the Rachel Carson movement of the '60s and third we are on the verge of it right now. There is [are] actually more people involved in bird conservation than ever before in history among the professional bird conservation people. There's a group, sort of, formed coalitions focused on protecting songbirds and waterfowl and shorebirds and wading birds and they have actually developed plans for how to fix the problem, how to grow more birds. But what we need is the support of the public and the government and we need to get those 80 million people invested in trying to, you know, turn that interest into something that'll start growing more birds. We need to link together that interest with the surge of professional bird conservation activity and we could really turn things around.

Steve: The first part of the book, before you get to the case-by-case analysis of the threatened and endangered birds, the first part of the book is just like a traditional book, you can sit there and read it and it has various sections and one of them talks about birds, as you know, literally canaries in coal mines and the rest of the bird species out there as our canaries in the ecological coal mine that we are in. So, now, what's the role of birds as indicators of the health of the environment, which is something that directly affects all of us. I mean, you know, look at asthma rates: that's environmental, you know, the birds are our markers.

Wells: Yeah, exactly! And birds through the ages have been indicators for people in various different ways. You know, they didn't always think of them that way but you know, in ancient cultures people watch for the return of birds that might indicate, you know, that spring was coming or that the fish runs were happening in the river and they were going to have food soon or that they were, you know, needed to maybe burn an area because they needed to get the kind of habitat that would bring back game birds or game mammals that they hunted. So, they've always been used as indicators. In more recent history, you know, we have examples, like when we saw the decline of peregrine falcons and bald eagles and ospreys and pelicans as a result of DDT. I mean, it really helped us to figure that DDT was a problem for one, and pesticides in general were an issue that we need to think about in terms of human health and people are, you know, becoming increasingly aware even today of that issue. So you know, birds are excellent indicators partly because people are so interested in them. Everybody watches them and pays to attention to them and they are telling us stories about the environment, messages about what's happening if we pay attention to their ups and downs.

Steve: Tell you a quick story, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh once, which I do as an exercise every once in a while, and he was talking about how, you know, environmentalism is a sham because this is actually what he said: "How can we believe, how can humans believe that we could possibly damage something that God made?" And as I was looking at your book and being reminded of the story of the passenger pigeons and they were, what, one and [a] half billion passenger pigeons in the country?

Wells: Three to five billion—that's what the estimate is.

Steve: Three to five billion. Alright, it is 1.6 billion acres of boreal forest and three to five billion passenger pigeons and that was true as recently as couple of hundred years ago.

Wells: Yeah. The late 1800s is when they were estimated to number at three to five billion and, from say, 1880 until—it only took from 1880 to 1914 to cause the entire extinction of that species; the last one died in a zoo in Cincinnati in 1914. They go from three billion to…

Steve: …zero.

Wells: One and then zero.

Steve: And that's permanent zero. They are not coming back.

Wells: Yeah, that's one that nobody thinks they are going to ever rediscover—they are gone.

Steve: And so, I always think of that in the Limbaugh context of how could we possibly damage something? The funny thing is he immediately went from that statement to a commercial that he read himself that was for a product to help you quit smoking. "If you are not worried about an environmentally related damage something that God made, why do you want to quit smoking?"

Wells: Oh, it's good.

Steve: But anyway...

Wells: I mean, that's all wrapped up in that whole idea that we can always come up with a new technological advance for, we caused, you know, something to disappear, you know. There's… I know a whole set of economists who say that there is nothing to worry about with the environment because we'll always come up with a new technological fix before things get too bad and yet, you know, what do you say to you know the passenger pigeon, what do you say to, you know, the ivory-billed woodpecker? There is a host of other species, what do you say, you know, the blue pike of the Great Lakes, you know, all these things that we commercially exploited and that are absolutely gone, you know, there's this case after case where it didn't work that way.

Steve: It's kind of like jumping out of an airplane and hoping somebody hands you a parachute before you hit the ground.

Wells: Exactly! Yeah, exactly. And the thing that's ironic about it is, with the passenger pigeon that at the time when they were so abundant they actually were something that provided this great economic boon to local communities. When a colony ended up nearby, people would go out, people who didn't have a lot of money would go out and they would take the birds and pack them in barrels and get paid for that and then send them to the markets. Now, people in New York City, in Chicago and Atlanta, you know, would get these things by rail and people who didn't have a lot of sources of protein in income, didn't have a lot of money, could buy cheap food for the time being. And, you know, it could have been possible to maintain something that abundant if it had been considered at the time, so that it would have provided economic opportunity into the future, if we had wanted that and we could have made sure that there were still passenger pigeons on the earth. There are, you know, it's possible to do some of those things, but instead we just thought of it as a resource that had no limits and every time we have done that and case after case around the world, we have ended up causing the extinction or, you know, the collapse of the population or cod fishery or whales or whatever it is.

Steve: Let's end on a happy note because you talk in the beginning of the book about how you—there's so much doom and gloom that often gets attached to environmental stories—but you hope that your book has an upbeat flavor to it and that it encourages people.

Wells: Yeah. I mean in a way that's one of the bird conservation secrets that I want everybody to know that once we figure out what the problem is we can actually fix it. We have got case after case where we have done it, you know, bald eagles are now common in many areas now and ospreys have come back and we reintroduced peregrine falcons across the east and you know, this case after case you know, whooping cranes have doubled in numbers, piping plovers have quadrupled in numbers. Now these are birds that we figured out what the problem was, we went in and we fixed the problem. It's case after case of that and right now there are thousands and thousands of people from the professional level to the amateur and volunteer level who have projects that they are working on to protect birds, save birds, to grow more birds and so there's a million ways to get involved. All it is just people actually recognizing what the problem is, recognizing that it's a value that they care about and then figuring out how to do something about it.

Steve: And speaking of those ways, you are the founder really of eBird.

Wells: I was part of the team that put together eBird. The eBird is sort of a revolutionary new Internet-based tool that allows anybody from amateur to professional to put in bird sightings from anywhere in much of the western hemisphere right now; it may be worldwide eventually and assemble all that data into one place, so that we can start understanding how birds move, how their populations change. You know, right now there are these millions of people out there seeing birds. Some people write down the numbers and so on, but that information doesn't go into a central place; it doesn't really get used or used effectively, and so you can imagine suddenly you have these millions of observers all across North America, putting those into a database that is stored forever and that researchers have access to, you know, it's kind of revolutionary and amazing and already they've, you know, amassed I don't know how many millions of records just in the last few years and it is so easy. You know, right here as we've been sitting here in Central Park, you know, I've heard 10 or 20 different species of birds. I can go on my computer in a few minutes and I could put all that information in and it is stored, you know, and saved. It's just amazing that, you know, you could capture that much information and it's interesting in the scientific perspective because what we are finding right now with issues like climate change and conservation is that we really need fine-grained samples from very large geographic areas to really understand the dynamics of species range movements and how fragmentation is occurring and many biogeographic questions, and literally, the only way we can do this is through voluntary networks like this because it would cost billions and billions to send professionals out at that finer scale to understand it.

Steve: So, this is a real opportunity for regular people to do real science that's valuable research and that gets used in big scientific projects.

Wells: Yeah, absolutely, and it is, sort of, almost cutting edge really, you know, to be able to capture masses of information at that kind of fine scale is something never been done on Earth.

Steve: Just go to

Wells: Yeah.

Steve: Dr. Wells, I know you have a migration to attend to. You have to fly back to Maine.

Wells: Yes.

Steve: Thanks very much for your time.

Wells: Thanks, Steve.

Steve: For more on the Boreal Songbird Initiative, just go to where you can also find Jeff Wells' blog.

(music plays)

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: If you watch an average five hours of cable news, you will get 17 minutes of science and technology reporting.

Story number 2: Alligators can maneuver underwater by moving their lungs around internally.

Story number 3: Last week a California man had his appendix removed through his mouth.

And story number 4: Moths can remember things they learned as caterpillars.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Moths retain memories laid down while they were caterpillars. That research appeared in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. Georgetown researchers found that tobacco hornworm caterpillars could be trained to avoid particular odors delivered in association with a mild electric shock. When the caterpillars emerged from their cocoons as moths, they also avoided the odors, showing that they had learned their larva lesson.

Story number 3 is true. On March 12th, surgeons at U.C. San Diego removed a man's appendix through this mouth. The intent is to avoid big incisions that increased recovery time. The procedure still requires a small incision to insert a tiny camera in the belly button.

And story number 2 is true. Alligators can move their lungs around, which act as flotation devices and thus move underwater without paddling or wagging their tails, makes it easier to sneak up on dinner. That's according to research published online in the Journal of Experimental Biology. For more, check out the March 14th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

All of which means that story number 1 about 17 minutes of sci-tech news in a five-hour block of cable news is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS because what is true is that you get one measly minute of science and technology coverage in the average five hours of cable news. That's according to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media Report for 2008. Celebrity, crime and disasters together get an average of an hour and 12 minutes out of the five hours. I've a friend who often says that watching cable news actually makes you dumber.

A sci-fi great, Arthur C. Clarke, died at the age of 90 on March 19th. He was a subscriber to Scientific American magazine. He occasionally would send us e-mail about articles. In tribute here are his three laws.

Clarke's Law One: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Clarke's Law Two: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

And Clarke's Law Three: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at and check out for the latest science news, blogs and videos. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

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