Aug 29, 2016 02:21PM ● Published by Becky Coburn
By Dr. Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Lindsay Wildlife Experience
Just as miners once used sensitive canaries to warn them of the presence of toxic gases in mines, wildlife can tell us a lot about our impact on natural ecosystems.
From accelerated climate change and habitat loss to the introduction of invasive species and persistent pollutants, our environment is subjected to the negative effects of human impacts, many of which remain invisible, such as changes to nutrient cycles. Since we can’t “see” it, we don’t give it much thought. In general, though, we do care about wildlife, and alterations to the environment are becoming a concern for the survival of many species.
Like the unfortunate canary, birds are considered to be “environmental indicators.” The presence, absence, abundance, and assemblages of birds can reveal the health of an ecosystem. Birds played a role in igniting the environmental movement with the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring. In it, Carson described the devastating impacts to birds by DDT – either indirectly by shell-thinning or directly by consuming prey such as insects sprayed with the pesticide.
Amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, are especially sensitive indicators because their thin, moist skin absorbs contaminants, such as agricultural and industrial chemicals. Dramatic declines in amphibian populations have been documented worldwide since the 1980s, with associated increases in the invertebrate pests that amphibians eat – pests that damage crops and carry human diseases.
Sadly, our feline companions bring the most immediate danger to wildlife. Domestic (and feral) cats kill between 1.3-4.0 billion birds annually, and that’s just the beginning. My former colleague, Dr. Sonia Hernandez from the University of Georgia, states that domestic cats’ main prey is reptiles (lizards, snakes, frogs).
My message isn’t intended to be a finger-wagging lesson about how humans are destroying the planet. As an ecologist (and cat lover), I believe every individual can make changes to his or her lifestyle to protect wildlife. Whether through informed consumer choices, voting for advocates of environmental issues, making backyards wildlife friendly, or simply keeping kitties indoors – each of us can protect the wildlife that depend upon us for survival.
The canary-in-a-coal mine metaphor is still relevant. In an age where life moves at an astounding pace, will we recognize the significance of what we’re losing before it’s too late? The alternative is a world devoid of bird song, frog peeps, and cricket chirps. I cannot imagine looking into a child’s eyes and explaining how we missed the signs that surrounded us.