State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Crash Land Home for the Holidays

By Josephine Decker

As holidays approach and we plan our “seasonal” migrations to see our families, many other species are making their own migrations — though with a few more snafus than we humans might hit.

Plate 404 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Eared Grebe

Last Monday night, thousands of Eared Grebes (poorly walking birds) crash-landed in a parking lot in Utah.  Mistaking the lot for a lake, they glided at 40 miles per hour into what they assumed would be a soft, cushioned water-landing – onto some Walmart concrete… The Grebes seek areas of brightness — lakes reflecting the light of the night sky – to land on.  The well-lit parking lot inadvertently emulated a glowing lake.  Though approximately 1500 of the duck-like birds, who do not walk well, died Monday, volunteers and officials with the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources rescued around 3000 of the stranded birds and transferred them to a nearby lake.  As Eared Grebes can only take off from water, the rescue was essential to the birds’ survival and continued migration.

Ornithologists are speculating on ways to avoid such deaths in the future. Softer lighting at night would help birds to stay on course and clear of manmade structures.

Eared Grebe Rescue in Utah (Credit: Lynn Chamberlain, Utah Division of Wildlife Services)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that Eared Grebes have a uniquely late migration, as their fall staging (preparation for migration) involves a lengthy process of doubling their weight. “The pectoral (chest) muscles shrink to the point of flightlessness, the digestive organs grow significantly, and great fat deposits accumulate. Then before departure for migration, the digestive organs shrink back to about one-fourth their peak size and the heart and pectoral muscles grow quickly.”

If only we humans could do this after Thanksgiving.

Though the enormous number of deaths on Monday was unusual, our actions affect animal migration in a variety of unintentionally destructive ways.

The Gulf oil spill is affecting the migration and health of a plethora of species. In addition to the spill’s dramatic effects on dolphins and many water birds, already endangered sperm whales migrating through the area of the spill face toxins that could poison, starve or suffocate them. And sea turtles, whose nesting beaches were affected by the spill, face threats of ingesting oil-contaminated prey, lowered oxygen to eggs and nesting interruptions.

And with every highway we build, we fragment animal habitats and reduce their access to food, water, and different climates, in addition to making them prime candidates for road kill.

For now, our own migration patterns are not affected – humans can travel by air or road to visit relatives for the holidays and return home unscathed.  But as the holidays approach, let’s keep in mind that the more we consume – and especially the more gas-guzzling plane flights and car rides we take — the harder we make it for other species to get “home for the holidays.”

Josephine Decker is pursuing a Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability at CERC. She is a filmmaker and performer based in Brooklyn. She has worked on documentaries for A&E, Discovery, and Logo, and her performance art seeks to raise awareness about environmental issues.

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