by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a two-month series of blogs written by Barry from Canada and, from her perch at our Sacramento headquarters in Northern California, Senior Program Associate Monica Engebretson. Their “blog-off” is part of Born Free USA’s celebration of National Bird Day, which every year falls on Jan. 5.)
It is well recognized that habitat loss is the single greatest overall threat to birds, outweighing the impacts of building collisions, domestic cat predation and human recreational hunting. Yet conservationists often overlook or ignore the role a particular human habit plays in driving habitat destruction.
Most people mistakenly believe that urban sprawl is responsible for largest loss of wildlife habitat in the United States. In actuality, two crops, corn and soybeans — 95 percent of which are fed to livestock — impact more of the nation’s land area than all urbanization, rural residential development, highways, railroads, commercial centers, malls, industrial parks and golf courses combined. All things considered, keeping meat on our plates is one of the leading forces in declining wild bird populations.
In a report prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, meat placed second only to automobiles in a list of most environmentally damaging products. The products were analyzed for their effect on global warming, air and water pollution, and the alteration of natural habitats. Diets that include animal products have a huge impact because meat is the least-efficient way to produce protein for our burgeoning human population. A World Watch Institute report indicates that it takes 2 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of chicken, 4 pounds to produce 1 pound of pork, and 6 pounds to produce 1 pound of feed-lot-raised beef. Another World Watch Institute report notes that a full 70 percent of all grain grown in the United States is used to feed farm animals.
Given these statistics, it easy to see how some consumers have erroneously assumed that range-fed beef is ecologically superior to feed lot-raised beef. Studies show, however, that grazing has caused more damage to Western public lands than any other single activity. Range-fed cattle pollute streams with urine and feces, introduce and spread exotic weeds, and trample riparian ecosystems, nests and nesting sites.
The Bureau of Land Management has estimated that 80 percent of western riparian habitats (areas generally rich in bird species have been damaged by livestock. While livestock watering troughs can be used as an alternative to riparian areas as a means of providing water to cattle, such troughs often serve as watery death traps for songbirds who drown while attempting to drink from them. In just a few weeks, a single trough can kill as many as 49 migratory songbirds.
Another major impact of grazing has been the clearing of sagebrush from its historic range. Ranchers and farmers have long vilified sagebrush for choking out “cattle grass” or for getting in the way of alfalfa and other livestock feed crops. Healthy sagebrush habitats harbor nearly as many species as riparian habitats, including 94 species of birds.
The impacts of livestock grazing are not limited to North America. In Latin America, the conversion of forests and other natural habitats to cattle ranches is considered the single biggest threat to biodiversity. Worldwide, grazing is a major cause of desertification — the creation of desert-like conditions where the soil cannot sustain natural productivity. Because forests store vast amounts of carbon, typically absorbing 20 to 50 times more than crops and pastures do, not only does clearing land for livestock production or feed grain destroy habitat, it contributes to global warming.
But the impact of meat consumption on global bird populations is not limited to terrestrial habitats. Each year, thousands of albatrosses are caught and drowned by the baited hooks towed behind longline fishing boats that target tuna, swordfish and shark for human consumption. Long-line fishing is now considered a significant threat to almost all of the 24 recognized living species and subspecies of albatross.
Also at risk due to humanity’s desire for animal flesh are mangrove wetlands, which serve as prime nesting and migratory stopover sites for hundreds of bird species. At least half of the world’s mangrove forests have been destroyed; one of the top reasons for this destruction is the construction of shrimp ponds.
While the collective impacts of human meat production on global bird populations far outranks the impacts of any other human driven impact, including bird kills due to communication tower collisions and predation by domestic cats, the subject of human dietary choices has received little or no attention from wild bird conservationists.
Why the collective silence?
Perhaps because the environmental impacts of the meat industry are spread out over a wide range of seemingly indirect effects on wild birds. It is much easier, for example, to make the life-and-death connection between a dead bird at the foot of a communication tower or between the jaws of a domestic cat than it is to make the connection between the meat on our plates and the wild birds and habitat destroyed to put it there. Or perhaps this issue receives so little attention because it is more comfortable to place the blame for declining bird populations on an inanimate structure or on another species rather than on our own daily dietary choices.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that by reducing or eliminating consumption of meat products, those concerned with protecting wild birds can help ease pressures on land and ocean ecosystems at every meal. If we are concerned about protecting global bird populations it’s time to step up to the plate and take a hard look at what’s on it.