Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Silence in the skies

Much as I hate to end the week on a dark note, I felt like I had to tell you about an alarming piece of research indicating that we may be in a lot more ecological trouble than we realized.

My wife and I live in a very "birdy" area -- right in the middle of a flyway, so we get a lot of what are called "passage migrants" that come through in spring heading to breeding grounds in eastern Canada, and back again in autumn as they fly toward their winter homes in more temperate latitudes.  We also have a great number of breeding residents, and (especially in a rural area such as ours) any wooded areas or natural fields are usually alive with birds, especially in late spring and early summer.

This spring, though, we noticed that there seemed to be a much smaller number, and smaller diversity, than usual.  One of the first spring birds we hear around here is the Eastern Phoebe, and the first one I heard was weeks later than usual (and we heard very few of them at all, despite the fact that they're very common most years).  We ordinarily have Baltimore Orioles nesting in our back yard, and I only heard a single oriole -- and that from a distance -- all summer.  The lovely Rose-breasted Grosbeak, usually a common bird at our feeders, showed up only once or twice in May, and not at all afterward.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of photographer Ken Thomas]

Not a single Scarlet Tanager this year.  No Least Flycatchers.  No House Wrens.  No Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  No Veeries (sad, because its beautiful song is usually a lovely part of a walk through the woods around here).  No Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blue-winged, or Black-and-White Warblers.  Barely any Eastern Meadowlarks (usually common in the field across the road from our house, and part of the dawn chorus all summer), Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Wood Thrushes.

Now, I'm not saying this decline was true everywhere, and it may be that some of the species we didn't see this year were abundant elsewhere.  But the shift in what once were commonplace backyard birds was striking -- and disconcerting.

Apparently, however, we're not the only ones who are experiencing an overall decline in numbers and diversity.  According to a paper published this week in Science, compared to 1970 there's been a 29% overall decrease in avian populations in the United States.

You read that right.  Over one in four are gone, an estimated total of three billion birds.

If this doesn't scare the absolute shit out of you, you need to stop and think about this a little more.

This loss of America's avifauna affects more than just birders, especially when you read the paper and find out that the decline wasn't uniform.  Species whose habitat was protected under the Migratory Bird Act -- mainly waterfowl like ducks and geese -- have done all right, and in fact some species have increased in numbers since 1970.  The hardest hit were the woodland and grassland birds -- species vulnerable to poor land utilization practices, habitat loss, and the increasing use of pesticides in agriculture.

Still, why does it matter?  A few pretty birds gone, which is sad, but why is it a concern for your average human being?  The term "canary in the coal mine" has almost become a cliché, but it applies here.  These species are sounding the alarm for overall ecological degradation, which ultimately affects all species, ourselves included.  The idea that we can devastate the environment and reap no consequences can only be believable if you have no concept whatever of how biology works.

If we don't change our ways, we're going to get our comeuppance sooner rather than later.  You can't keep pulling threads out of the tapestry without the entire thing falling to pieces.  Or, as Sierra Club founder John Muir put it: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation made the cut more because I'd like to see what others think of it than because it bowled me over: Jacques Vallée's Passport to Magonia.

Vallée is an interesting fellow, and certainly comes with credentials; he has an M.S. in astrophysics from the University of Lille and a Ph.D. in computer science from Northwestern University.  He's at various times been an astronomer, a computer scientist, and a venture capitalist, and apparently was quite successful at all three.  But if you know his name, it's probably because of his connection to something else -- UFOs.

Vallée became interested in UFOs early, when he was 16 and saw one in his home town of Pontoise, France.  After earning his degree in astrophysics, he veered off into the study of the paranormal, especially allegations of alien visitation, associating himself with some pretty reputable folks (J. Allen Hynek, for example) and some seriously questionable ones (like the fraudulent Israeli spoon-bender, Uri Geller).

Vallée didn't really get the proof he was looking for (of course, because if he had we'd probably all know about it), but his decades of research compiles literally hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of alleged sightings and abductions.  And that's what Passport to Magonia is about.  To Vallée's credit, he doesn't try to explain them -- he doesn't have a favorite hypothesis he's trying to convince you of -- he simply says that there are two things that are significant: (1) the number of claims from otherwise reliable and sane folks is too high for there not to be something to it; and (2) the similarity between the claims, going all the way back to medieval claims of abductions by spirits and "elementals," is great enough to be significant.

I'm not saying I necessarily agree with him, but his book is lucid and fascinating, and the case studies he cites make for pretty interesting reading.  I'd be curious to see what other Skeptophiles think of his work.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. Gordon, Again excellent. I will try to share this. Every little thing is connected. hugs, Crow

  2. We had our year of the crows, this year. They usually keep a lot of the birds away that are normally here. It happens in cycles. So many years of all the others, then the crows for a year or two. I think it's God's way of making sure the food chain cycles properly, so it can support itself. Were you missing a lot of crows this year? Someone was. We had them. Hope to send them back next year. I think this may be our sign that the winter I've been expecting is coming on this year. We'll see how it turns out. If we get our 10-year ugly winter, I'll know to watch for the crows, next time.

    I hope your bird situation was just a year off, like we get.