Nativism is shooting us in the foot

A few months ago, we told you about one of the many projects to eradicate a plant species that is considered non-native.  In this case, smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) is native to the East and Gulf coasts of the US, but is considered non-native on the West Coast, despite the fact that it has been here for over one hundred years.  About $12 million was spent in the past 10 years on this effort, and the projection is that another $16 million will be spent in the next 10 years.

California Clapper Rail. British Wikipedia

When we told you about this project, we speculated that it was having a negative effect on an endangered species, the Clapper Rail.  The non-native Spartina provides cover that is superior to the native variety of Spartina.  It grows more densely and it doesn’t die back during the winter months, as the native variety does.  We also pointed out that the Clapper Rail is abundant on the East and Gulf coasts and is only considered endangered on the West Coast. 

Since we told you about this eradication project, we’ve learned a few things about the Clapper Rail that we hope will interest you, as it does us. 

  • This seems to be another case in which native plant advocates are looking for a scapegoat, when they should be looking at themselves.  Native plant advocates would like you to believe that the Clapper Rail is endangered on the West Coast because of the introduction of non-native red fox.  The red fox is yet another creature that nativists wish to eradicate in the Bay Area.  Apparently it has not occurred to them that the red fox is native to the East Coast, where the Clapper Rail is thriving.  Hmmm, that seems like a bit of contradiction, No?
  • We have learned of the displacement of Clapper Rails from marshes in which the non-native Spartina in being eradicated.
  • The Point Reyes Bird Observatory, a nationally recognized institution that conducts research on birds, has concluded that the Spartina eradication project is having a negative effect on the Clapper Rail.

Evidence that eradication of Spartina alterniflora is harmful to Clapper Rails

In July, a Clapper Rail was seen and photographed at Heron’s Head in southeastern San Francisco.  There was quite a bit of excitement about this sighting because a Clapper Rail had not been seen in San Francisco for decades.  That excitement dissipated when we learned more about where this bird came from, which provided a probable reason for the move. 

The Clapper Rail was wearing a radio collar that had been put on him and 109 other rails by the USGS to track their movements.  He had moved from Colma Creek, 11 km south of Heron’s Head, which is one of nearly 200 Spartina “control sites” in the San Francisco Estuary.  The bird sighted at Heron’s Head is one of three Clapper Rails that have left Colma Creek since 2007, when the radio collars were placed.  The Spartina control project has been going on for nearly 10 years, so we have no way of knowing how many Clapper Rails were displaced prior to 2007.

In October 2011, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory issued the first-ever “State of the Birds Report for San Francisco Bay:”  “Based on decades of monitoring, 29 partners detail the actions needed to keep birds and their habitats thriving as sea levels rise and extreme storm events increase due to global climate change.”  This report acknowledges the role that the Spartina eradication project plays in the continuing decline of the population of Clapper Rails in the Bay Area:

The Clapper Rail’s rebound during the 1990’s was possibly due to fox control but also coincided with the rapid invasion of a tall non-native plant (invasive Spartina).  This invader benefited rails because it provided nesting habitat and protection from predators and high tides.  Beginning in the mid-2000s, the rail population declined sharply, due in part to the removal of invasive Spartina, which threatens tidal flat and marsh ecosystems as a whole.  This recent decline may be leveling off, but the future of Clapper Rails in San Francisco Bay remains tenuous.”

This is another example of the harmful obsession with non-native plants, which seems to trump other considerations, such as the welfare of the animals that benefit from the plants.  As is often the case with such eradication projects, Spartina is being eradicated with an herbicide, imazapyr.  This is a new herbicide about which little is known.  The analysis which was done to justify its use in the Spartina eradication project admits that no studies have been done on its effect on shorebirds, including the endangered Clapper Rail.  The Material Safety Data Sheet mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that imazapyr is “not readily biodegradable.”  So, in the event that we eventually learn that this herbicide is harmful to shorebirds and/or to us, we can be assured that it will still be in the environment, in the nearly 200 sites in the San Francisco Estuary on which it is currently being sprayed.  Imazapyr is also being sprayed–sometimes from helicopters–in hundreds of places along the West Coast, including in other states.  (A new post on Save Sutro reports more alarming information about imazapyr.)

The cost of nativism

This is an example of the harmful effects of attempting to eradicate non-native species.  It reminds us of a recent editorial in the New York Times about the new law in Alabama which is considered the most extreme anti-immigration law in the country.  The opponents of immigration are delighted with the new law.  The farmers of Alabama are warning us that they cannot replace the immigrants who are fleeing the state. Most of the work in the country’s agriculatural fields and orchards is being done by immigrants.  These are jobs that Americans are no longer willing to do.  This is just one of many unintended consequences of such xenophobic extremism.   We consider the Spartina eradication project another example of nativism run amok.

Another Eucalyptus Myth: Bird Death According to Audubon

As we have said in other posts on Million Trees, those who demand the destruction of non-native trees justify their demand by making many critical claims about them.  One of the most disturbing of these claims is that eucalypts kill birds.  Reprinted here with permission is an excerpt from an article in the April 2010 newsletter of the Hills Conservation Network which debunks this myth.

The Hills Conservation Network is a group of residents in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills who advocate for fire safety without clear-cutting non-native trees.  Most of the members of the network are survivors of the 1991 fire in their neighborhood.  Some lost their homes.  Some lost members of their family.  They are highly motivated to improve fire safety in their neighborhood and they strongly believe that fire hazard mitigation can be achieved without destroying all non-native trees. 

Please visit their website  to see other issues of their newsletter which is a valuable source of information on the subject of fire hazard mitigation.  You may subscribe to their free on-line newsletter by sending an email to inquiries@hillsconservationetwork.org.

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BIRDS AND BLUE GUM: LOVE OR DEATH?

Brochures distributed by various agencies in northern California state that the flowers of eucalyptus trees kill birds. According to these brochures, birds feeding on insects or on the nectar of eucalyptus flowers may have their faces covered with “gum” and die of suffocation. Luckily for the birds, according to one brochure, most of them prefer native vegetation, and avoid eucalyptus groves.

These stories are, of course, extremely upsetting to all of us who love birds.

The bird-suffocation story began with a 1996 article by Rich Stallcup, a legendary birder who writes for the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory. In the PRBO Observer, he reported that, on one day in late December, he counted, in one eucalyptus tree:  20 Anna’s Hummingbirds, 20 Audubon Warblers, 3 Orange-crowned Warblers, 10 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a few starlings, 2 kinds of orioles, a Palm Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a warbling Vireo, and a summer Tanager.

That was an unusually large number of birds, even for Stallcup to see in one tree, but what most surprised him, he says, is what he found under that blue gum eucalyptus tree: a dead Ruby-crowned Kinglet, its face “matted flat from black, tar-like pitch.”

Years before, Stallcup recalled in the article, he had found “a dead hummingbird with black tar covering its bill” under eucalyptus trees. This was all Stallcup needed to come up with his theory about what had happened.

This theory is now stated as fact in restorationist literature and it is stated three times as fact in the “Wildfire Plan”/EIR issued by the East Bay Regional Park District in August 2009.

Stallcup theorizes that North American birds are different from birds indigenous to Australia. He speculates that North American birds such as kinglets, warblers, and hummingbirds have evolved short, straight bills while Australian birds evolved long, curved bills. Thus, he says, when American birds with short bills seek nectar or insects on eucalyptus flowers, they have to insert their whole head into the blossom, so they get gummy black tar all over their faces.

Misleading illustration from Stallcup article

We have great respect for Stallcup’s ability to identify birds.  But we have a few problems with his theory.

 

Australian Weebill. Credit: Stuart Harris

1. A bird-loving friend who has photographed birds in Australia points out that Australian field guides show birds with a wide variety of bill length and curvature.  When he was in Australia, he saw birds with small bills just like American kinglets and warblers.  “How do you suppose the Australian Weebill got its name?” our friend asked.  Many of us not so familiar with Australian birds have seen parakeets and other small small-billed parrots native to Australia. Weebills  and many other American and Australian birds with small bills forage on eucalyptus leaves or flowers.

To see more birds of Australia, go to this terrific website. It features photos of many small-billed birds. 

 
 
 
 
 

 

Blue gum eucalyptus flowers on tree, March, 2010. Credit: John Hovland

 

 

2. Where’s the gum? The flower of a blue gum eucalyptus tree has no gum, glue, or tarlike substance on it or in it. The gum in “gum trees” refers to the sap or resin that, in some species, comes from the trunk. Other species of gum trees, such as the sweet gum (Liquidambar) are common sidewalk trees in Berkeley and Oakland. The flowers on the blue gum eucalyptus are white or cream-colored with light yellow or light green centers. There is no black, sticky, gummy or tarry substance in or on the living flower. In fact, both the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Australian Weebill are leaf-gleaners. They take insects off leaf surfaces, not from flowers. If the kinglet had gum on its face, the gum did not come from a eucalyptus blossom.

3. A euc flower looks most like a chrysanthemum, with longer petals. Unlike a morning glory, the euc flower is not shaped like a tube that a bird would need to poke its bill into to get nectar or insects. A hummingbird is more likely to pick up a sticky substance from inside a cup-shaped tulip, poppy, or any of the tiny tube-flowers such as California fuchsia, Indian paintbrush, watsonia, or honeysuckle that hummingbirds love. Common sense tells us that no bird, even a tiny one, could suffocate while feeding on a euc flower or leaf.

 

Watsonia, Willow Walk, Berkeley, 2010. Credit: John Hovland

4. We have all seen hummingbirds poking their beaks into tube-like flowers. If you peel back these tube-like flowers, you will sometimes find a sticky substance on your finger.  You’ve probably seen birds, especially tiny hummingbirds, sipping from these flowers. How do they escape getting nectar on their faces? An article in the NY Times proves truth is stranger than the fiction of suffocated hummingbirds. The article explains that a hummingbird gets nectar from a flower by wrapping its tongue into a cylinder to create a straw about ¾ inch long extending from its bill. This means that a hummingbird’s face does not touch the surface of a flat type of flower such as the flower of a blue gum eucalyptus.

After Stallcup wrote his article in 1996, it was accepted by birders and eucaphobes all across America. In January, 2002, Ted Williams, wrote about the “dark side” of eucalyptus in his opinion column called “Incite” for Audubon Magazine

Stallcup, he wrote, had told him he had found 300 dead birds over the years “with eucalyptus glue all over their faces.” Williams wrote that the bird artist, Keith Hansen, who illustrates Stallcup’s articles, had found “about 200 victims.”(How did one kinglet and one hummingbird in 1996 add up to 500 victims by 2002 even though few if any other people have seen even a single victim?)  Williams and Hansen also describe the suffocating material as “gum.”

Williams, in that same over-the-top column, dares to contradict Stallcup, claiming that he has heard only one Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a eucalyptus grove, and has never actually seen any birds in eucalyptus trees. Yet he repeats (and exaggerates) Stallcup’s story about eucalyptus suffocating birds. The National Park Service, U.C.,  EBRPD, and the Audubon Society   have spread Williams’ interpretation of Stallcup’s story—apparently without questioning any part of it.

Stallcup and Williams are bird-lovers and writers. They are not scientists. David Suddjian, a wildlife biologist, has read Stallcup’s theory about birds suffocating on the “black pitch” of eucalyptus flowers, but in his article, “Birds and Eucalyptus on the Central California Coast: A Love-Hate Relationship,” he casts doubt on Stallcup’s claim that the kinglet (and other birds) could have been suffocated by eucalyptus flowers. Here is an excerpt from his article:

“. . . in my experience and the experience of a number of other long-term field ornithologists, we have seen very little evidence of such mortality.  It has been argued that the bird carcasses do not last long on the ground before they are scavenged. However, when observers spend hundreds of hours under these trees over many years but find hardly any evidence of such  mortality, then it seems fair to question whether the incidence of mortality is as high as has been suggested. Not all bird carcasses are scavenged rapidly, and large amounts of time under the trees should produce observations of dead birds, if such mortality were a frequent event. . .more evidence is needed.”

The Suddjian article is not generally favorable to eucalyptus trees. However, Suddjian notes that more than 90 species of birds in the Monterey Bay Region use eucalyptus on a regular basis. Additionally some rare migratory birds bring the total to 120 birds seen in euc groves. These include birds that use eucalyptus trees, leaves, seeds, or flowers for breeding, nesting, foraging, and roosting. A complete list of birds that depend on eucalyptus trees is too long to include here. We encourage you to click on the link to the Suddjian article so you can look for the names of the various bird species and note how they use—and depend on—eucalyptus trees.

Lynn Hovland

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Million Trees Webmaster:  Shortly after this urban legend surfaced over 10 years ago, I had an opportunity to ask a local scientist about it. While attending an open house at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I was able to talk to the head of its ornithology division at the time.

He started by saying that although he had never seen a dead bird in a eucalyptus forest, there weren’t as many birds there because the eucalypts don’t offer as much food for birds as other vegetation types. (Those who bird in the eucalyptus forest without a nativist bias don’t agree with this generalization about a lack of birds, however.) He also said he hadn’t heard the claim.

Then, the scientist said that the story didn’t seem consistent with bird anatomy. He said that birds are capable of lifting their feet to their heads and clearing whatever might be accumulating there with their toes.   

Ten years and many walks in the eucalyptus forest later, we have yet to see a dead bird, but the myth lives on.