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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Just Say No to Cerulean Warbler

Air Date: Week of

The Cerulean Warbler is four inches long and has a thin, pointed bill. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Is coal mining pushing the forest-dwelling songbird, the Cerulean Warbler, to the brink? Some conservationists think so and they’ve petitioned the government to have the bird protected under the Endangered Species Act. The National Audubon Society’s director of bird conservation Greg Butcher joins host Bruce Gellerman to discuss the government’s recent decision regarding the fate of this little, blue bird.



GELLERMAN: The song of the Cerulean Warbler was once common in the forests of the eastern United States. But today the voice of the Warbler is rare. The population of the songbird has declined more than 80 percent in just four decades. And conservationists say this is the reason:


GELLERMAN: On this mountaintop in West Virginia, huge machines mine coal. This type of excavation has destroyed more than 800 square miles of southern Appalachian forest, which happens to be the heart of the habitat of the migrating Cerulean Warbler.
As the number of birds has steadily and steeply declined, conservation organizations have tried to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the Cerulean Warbler to the Endangered Species list.

The federal government stalled for six years, so the groups sued the Wildlife Service for an answer. Now they’ve got one, and environmentalists don’t like it. The Cerulean Warbler will not be listed as an endangered species. Greg Butcher is Director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society, and he joins us.

BUTCHER: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: Did the decision surprise you?

BUTCHER: No, unfortunately it didn’t. This administration has listed the absolute minimum number of species as threatened or endangered as possible. So, we were afraid this would happen.

GELLERMAN: So why is the Cerulean Warbler so important?

BUTCHER: Well, the Cerulean Warbler is important for a variety of reasons. One, is it’s a beautiful bird. It is one of God’s creations. It is valued in and of its own right. But it also provides an economic importance. It is found in eastern deciduous forests where it eats a variety of insects. And it especially eats leaf-eating insects. And so the leafiness, the shade, the air-cleansing ability of the forest is dramatically better because the Cerulean Warbler is here to do its function.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, but unfortunately its habitat is the same place that is home to the open mining industry in the eastern United States.

BUTCHER: Yes, the Cerulean Warbler is in the bull’s eye for a process known as mountain top removal mining. And there’s still a tremendous amount of coal found in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. And it turns out that Cerulean Warblers need mountaintops for their preferred habitat. And so a tremendous amount of Cerulean Warbler habitat is projected to disappear in the future, due to this mining practice.

The Cerulean Warbler is four inches long and has a thin, pointed bill. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

GELLERMAN: People are going to hear this and they’re going to say, “bird: my home being heated in the winter.”

BUTCHER: Bird has to stand for the environment as a whole. And the environment is tremendously important to all of us. If we can’t preserve enough habitat for the Cerulean Warbler to thrive then it’s an indication that we’re not preserving the habitat or the air or the water in the way that humans need to survive.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Butcher, I understand that the Cerulean Warbler has become sort of a poster species, an example of how the Bush Administration has been using, or not using, the endangered species act.

BUTCHER: It’s not a complete poster species yet because we haven’t been able to pull back the curtain and understand how the decision was made. We know for other endangered species that the process hasn’t been followed correctly. And so a bird like the Gunnison Sage Grouse, we know that there was a recommendation from the field to list that bird and then a reversal by the political appointees in Washington DC not to list the bird. So in many ways that’s the worst example we’ve seen so far. It does seem very surprising to us that a bird that’s declining at more than 3 percent per year and more than 30 percent every ten years doesn’t qualify for the endangered species list.

GELLERMAN: Well if the decline of the Warbler has been so dramatic, what reasons did they give for not listing it?

BUTCHER: Well, basically they said that it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll loose 90 percent of the individuals of the species over the next 100 years, but it’s not reasonable to assume we’ll loose them all.

GELLERMAN: You save 10 out of 100 and that’s good enough.

BUTCHER: That’s the reasoning. It’s not good enough for me, and I think it’s not good enough for most people who care about our environment and our bird populations.

GELLERMAN: Well, what are you going to do about it?

BUTCHER: I don’t know for sure yet. It’s one of these things where there’s a long ruling of many pages and we’re going to want to look very carefully at the reasoning. The good thing is that good conservation work for the bird will continue. It’s a very high priority for a wide number of people. Unfortunately we won’t have the same ability to impact the actions of the mining companies as we would have if the bird had been listed.

GELLERMAN: So, if an animal like the Warbler isn’t going to be listed, what hope is there for other animals?

BUTCHER: Well, the hope is that 2 years from now there will be a new administration and that administration is almost certain to care more about the endangered species and the Endangered Species Act than this one does.

GELLERMAN: Have you ever seen a Cerulean Warbler?

BUTCHER: Oh absolutely. It’s a beautiful bird. It’s actually a little tough to see because it nests in the canopies of trees. It sings its heart out, especially during May and June. And so I’ve been out to Shenandoah National Park in the mountains of Virginia and you can hear that song of the Cerulean Warbler and you have to look up and you get a thing called “warbler neck” because you have to look straight up into the canopy to try and find the bird. You can be sure I stuck around until I got a really good look at it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Butcher, thank you very much.

BUTCHER: Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

GELLERMAN: Greg Butcher is Director of Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society.



U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “12-month Finding on a Petition to List the Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea) as Threatened with Critical Habitat”

National Audubon Society on the Cerulean Warbler

U.S. Geological Survey on the Cerulean Warbler


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