Bald Eagles Rebound, Other Birds of Prey in Trouble
BANGKOK The bald eagle is out of the woods, but other birds of prey are in trouble. An icon of conservationists, the bald eagle was on the brink of extinction in America's lower 48 states four decades ago, when its numbers stood at just 417 nesting pairs.
Antipoaching measures, a reduction in the use of lethal pesticides, and the transfer of eagles from Canada have seen its numbers rise in the lower 48 to several thousand. Washington now says that some of the bird's safeguards can be loosened.
Classified as endangered in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act, it was downgraded to threatened in 1995, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed that it be removed from the list.
At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference which began in Bangkok on Saturday, Washington is proposing that the bird's global status be shifted from a list of critically endangered animals to one that would allow some commercial trade in the species.
The gesture is in some ways symbolic, as global demand for the bird and its parts is modest and limited mostly to collectors of Native American artifacts.
"There appears to be little evidence suggesting a strong demand for eagles or eagle parts on an international scale," says the U.S. proposal to CITES.
Outside America's lower 48 states, bald eagles are flourishing. In Alaska and British Columbia there are believed to be close to 100,000 of the birds, who are a common sight soaring high above the region's thickly wooded coastline.
Other winged predators are not so lucky, and conservationists say that the bald eagle's success should not lead to a false sense of complacency regarding its feathered kin.
BirdLife International has classified about one-quarter of the planet's roughly 305 known raptor species as threatened.
"Many birds of prey are in global decline," said BirdLife's Richard Thomas.
Birds under threat include the majestic saker falcon, which is being pushed toward extinction because of demand from wealthy Gulf Arabs who prize the bird for its hunting prowess. The saker falcon is the traditional species used by Gulf falconers when hunting the houbara bustard.
BirdLife said recent surveys show its population has fallen to around 4,000 pairs in 2003 from about 10,000 pairs in 1990 a decline of 60 percent throughout its range, which stretches from eastern Europe to western China.
Even CITES, a convention credited with saving a range of animals, would have difficulty regulating this trade.
"I don't think that CITES can do all that much for the saker falcon. The sums involved are just too great and the trappers are just too poor," said Dr. Nigel Collar of BirdLife.
Many of the worst-off populations are in developing countries, where the use of pesticides in agriculture is not always subject to strict or properly enforced regulations. As top predators, birds of prey often suffer heavily from contamination as the poison works its way up the food chain.
"A lot of birds of prey are doing better in Europe now because of the elimination of pesticides such as DDT," said BirdLife's Thomas.
In much of Africa, this is not always the case.
Rampant deforestation and habitat loss is also reducing raptor numbers in parts of the developing world. Ridgway's hawk is down to only a few dozen in its only home, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Urban Scene Mixed
Urbanization has had a more mixed impact.
The elimination of habitat associated with urban sprawl may not be good for bigger species such as eagles, but others take to cities like ducks to water. In South Africa's bustling commercial center of Johannesburg, owls can sometimes be spotted atop telephone poles at dusk, while various hawks and kites hunt in the city's parks.
"Some of the smaller raptor species capitalize on human settlement, and they are an indicator of an altered environment," said Andrew Jenkins of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in Cape Town, South Africa. "Suburban gardens ... support a high number of birds, and bird-eating hawks can make hay out of the situation," he said.
High-rise buildings are also good nesting sites for some predatory birds, while others thrive on the rat and mice populations that accompany dense human settlements.
The bald eagle's comeback in the continental United States may give hope for some birds of prey, but its fall to near extinction was a sign that an even worse fate may await others.
When the bald eagle was adopted as the national symbol of the United States in 1782, it was estimated that there were 250,000 of the birds in the land that today forms the lower 48 states. Hunting, poisoning, and habitat loss as America expanded west all took their toll on the bird, driving down its numbers to the few hundred that were left in 1963 in the continental United States.