Prove your humanity

Tens of thousands of fires in the Amazon continue to burn, and that’s bad news for many animals, including birds. While much of the world watches in horror, over four million acres of rainforest in Brazil have burned  as result of a new focus on agriculture and development.

Luke DeGroote is the Avian Research Coordinator at Powdermill Nature Reserve, part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, located in the Laurel Highlands. There, researchers have banded migrating birds for decades.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with DeGroote about the impact these fires could be having on birds we see in our region.

LISTEN to their conversation:


Kara Holsopple: Are there birds that come through our region which spend the winter or time in the Amazon?

Luke DeGroote: Yes, there are a few that use the primary forest, the rainforest, like gray-cheeked thrushes. It’s a member of the thrush family, like robins, but a little bit smaller.  It’s not one you would probably commonly see. Veeries, and maybe one or two other species, like blackpoll warblers would be spending the winter down there, then migrating back through our region, and heading north to the tundra in northern Canada. 

The gray-cheeked thrush. Photo courtesy of Powdermill Nature Reserve

KH: The blackpoll warbler – I’ve heard a lot about that bird species. It’s having some issues breeding, and it has habitat problems here. 

LD: Both the blackpolls and the gray-cheeks are getting squeezed on the summer grounds, because with climate change, the tundra is turning more into scrub. They have had to find breeding habitat further and further north.

KH: What time of year do these birds come through?

LD: They’re going to be coming through soon. In September is when we’re going to be getting most of both of those species, as they return back towards the Amazon for the winter. 

KH: So how will the fires there possibly impact them?

LD: If there’s less habitat for them to use in the wintering grounds, it can be harder for them to make it through the winter, and then potentially return the following spring.

“The Amazon rainforest isn’t adapted for succession. They don’t typically have these big fires, and then regrow.”

Those two species are one of the few that would probably use what we might think of typically is the rainforest– primary pristine habitat. But they will also use secondary forests, and most of our migrants that are coming through will use the forest that is regrowing on the edge of the Amazon, or even other types of habitats. They will travel often in mixed species flocks, looking for insects and fruit to eat over the winter.

KH: So there will be less habitat for them – fewer places for them to look for food with the fires that are happening there?

LD: Yeah, there certainly could be. 

KH: Birds are incredibly mobile. A lot of the animals that are in the Amazon are not going to be able to move as quickly. Talk a little bit about that in terms of environmental disasters and birds. 

LD: So for migrants, this isn’t their breeding habitat, and they’re a little more flexible on the wintering grounds.

As I mentioned, these are two species that can use the primary forest, but they can also use these other areas that might be growing back up. Now if it’s agricultural land, then they have very little that they can eat.

The species that are in the Amazon rainforest, in the primary forests, are well adapted to occupy very narrow habitats. It could be at a particular height in that tree canopy that they find their best food. They’re really well adapted to finding particular food resources, and the Amazon rainforest isn’t adapted for succession, for the changeover, like we have in North America. They don’t typically have these big fires, and then regrow.

There are trees that fall, and there are changes that happen on small scales, but if that habitat is removed those bird species simply don’t have a place that they can go, because they won’t have the same food that they’re looking for. 

KH: How concerned are you about what’s happening in the Amazon?

LD: I’m concerned. It’s complicated because, in some ways, this isn’t a new problem. There certainly was a lot of awareness back in the 80s and 90s. I remember in high school the Save the Rainforest campaign.

Now there has been more interest in developing it, so there’s been a tremendous loss. When you look at it on that big scale–this specific round of fires–I think it’s great that it’s raising awareness that this is a continuing problem, and that it should be addressed.

There is a concern among the scientific community that if we lose too much of the rainforest, we could reach this tipping point where it becomes more of a savanna. The rainforest generates its own rain through the tree respiration, and so if you lose too much of it, that natural process it breaks down. 

KH: Deforestation is happening in Brazil to make way for agriculture and development, which has caused these fires. But deforestation is happening in other places in the world, too. How does it impact bird species in their ecosystems?

LD: Habitat loss is the greatest threat that birds face, whether it’s on the wintering habitat and the breeding grounds through climate change, or simply deforestation.

We’re logging more of the boreal forest, and there’s less boreal forest where these birds can go to, or even less forest as they travel during migration.

“Habitat loss is the greatest threat that birds face, whether it’s on the wintering habitat and the breeding grounds through climate change, or simply deforestation.”

In the east, we’ve actually become more re-forested in many areas. In the 1800s, we went through this development period, where we extracted a lot of resources. We had a lot of small scale agriculture, and there are areas in New England that are more forested now than they were maybe 100 years ago. 

A lot of forest habitats are preserved through national forests, or national parks. It becomes more the activity and fragmentation that can be bigger issues. So if we put in more roads to extract logs, or if we’re putting in roads to frack, that fragmentation could be harmful for a lot of species. So it’s not necessarily the loss of total forest, but how we use the landscape.

In North America, a lot of areas are adapted to this cycle of fire, and then regrowth. There are species that require pristine forest, but there are also species that require a habitat that is growing back up. Many of those species have had to the most precipitous declines, because if we aren’t managing the landscape for those habitats, they may not happen on their own, especially if we’re suppressing fire.

It’s the accumulation of all these threats that’s an issue, and it isn’t just habitat loss. There are other threats, as well, but habitat loss is certainly the greatest threat that birds face.