Since March, the Midwestern United States has been pummeled with heavy rainstorms which, coupled with melting snow, caused rivers and lakes to crest, inundating highways, bridges, towns, and farms. This late winter – early spring weather broke records; May was the second-wettest month in recorded US history which also saw a historic number (>500) of tornados1. As of late June, about “200 river gauges along the Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas rivers are still reporting flood levels”1.
These weather events received worldwide coverage but focused almost entirely on their impact on farmers and food production. Most reports were along these lines: “In parts of America’s Heartland, prolonged wet weather and historic flooding are disrupting spring planting for many farmers. Nearly three months after waters washed over parts of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, some fields remain submerged”2. It is quite natural that we be worried about our food production since humanity depends almost entirely on cultivated food and the inability to grow food per schedule has serious consequences. But we have enough food reserves, farmers have financial cushions (insurance, subsidies, bailouts), and we are omnivores – all these factors will ensure that we will weather this storm, like most other natural disasters. But the impacts of these extreme weather conditions on wildlife, which did not make headline news, have been catastrophic.
The Raptor Resource Project (RRP), a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation of falcons, eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls, monitors and maintains over 50 nests and nest sites3. One of them is a Bald Eagle nest in Decorah, Iowa, close to the Mississippi river which also has a nestcam. After a lapse of several years, this spring I again started watching, periodically, the live internet feed from the Decorah Eagle nestcams. Bald eagle and all other raptors are federally protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The bald eagle, US national bird, is afforded additional protection under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act4. The Decorah eagles raised 2-3 babies every year since 2008 when RRP started monitoring this nest. I had watched them for the first time in 2011 and even wrote about one of the juveniles (which was banded and tracked) in my GIS project5.
Over the years, several eagles born in the Decorah nest perished due to man-made situations, such as electrocution from high energy transmission lines and road accidents. This year the natural elements added to the perils of the Decorah eagles. The extremely severe weather conditions of this spring, and the accompanying black fly infestation (akin to the plague and pestilence) of Biblical proportions added to the travails of parenting in the avian world. Both Decorah parents took turns shielding the babies from snowstorms, gale-force winds, and incessant torrential downpours. Just when the babies appeared to have weathered these calamitous events, they were infested with black flies while still in the nest.
Black flies, aka buffalo gnats are tiny robust flies that are blood-sucking pests of wildlife serving as vectors of multiple disease agents6. These events proved disastrous for the growing eaglets. Folks who tuned in to the live feed from the nestcams on that June 4th afternoon watched in horror as the older of the 2 eaglets (which had branched earlier during the day) hopped on to an adjoining branch presumably to escape the flies on the nest, apparently lost its footing, and disappeared into the dense vegetation under the tree. This tragic scene was replayed the next day when the younger one also moved on to the same branch and it too lost footing / jumped and was also lost. The professionals at RRP, volunteers, and locals all sprang into action looking for the 2 babies which were too young to fledge and still needed parental care. They located the younger eaglet the same day and after a frantic search they eventually found the older eaglet on the third day. Both were transported to Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a nonprofit organization dedicated to raptor rehabilitation, education, and research7. At this same time another bald eagle nest in the area also had a baby fall out of it and it too was transported to SOAR. The vets found all these eaglets to be dehydrated, extremely underweight, and anemic with extensive fly bites. The downpours and the winds may have interfered with the parents’ ability to fish in the muddied waters of the streams and creeks which could explain the emaciated condition of the eaglets. Additionally, the older Decorah eaglet was found to have a broken leg which, based on the fracture location, could not be surgically rectified. The vets put the leg in a cast to allow it to heal naturally. At the time of writing this blog, all three eaglets are still in the rehab facility, and the eaglet with the broken leg is still in a cast, eating chopped food to avoid the use of its feet and talons to break up the meat. It remains to be seen if these birds will recover from their horrific experiences, learn survival skills without parents, and be released into the wild. Bad as the situation was, these birds were fortunate to have been rescued and given a fighting chance of survival. Diverse raptors across the area are evidently in a similar state, as attested by the number of new patients at SOAR this season.
Reading about these happenings, one cannot help but wonder what the eagle parents are going through – arduously raising their babies for 2 months only to helplessly see them disappear just 3-4 weeks before fledging and flying away… This year all across the Midwest a multitude of species is likely suffering increased morbidity and mortality with much worse outcomes compared to those of the Decorah eagles.
“Since 1991, annual precipitation in the Midwest has increased, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Additionally, intense rainstorms have become more common8.” According to scientists, it is unusual for the Midwest to experience as many strong storms and severe weather events in one spring as it did this year. They attribute it partly to El Niño, a natural weather event that enhances precipitation and severe weather conditions. However, “manmade climate change intensifies these natural variations, causing more rain to fall in what would already have been a wet year1.”
This new norm does not bode well for biodiversity. Wildlife has to overcome innumerable odds to survive and propagate their species and now due to human activity those odds are becoming insurmountable. A single species with a massive footprint & fingerprint on all ecosystems is proving disastrous for all others. Restoring ecosystems to their native state equilibrium would be the first step in redressing this situation. Recreating and maintaining riparian/aquatic habitats with diverse native vegetation will attract native wildlife including natural predators (such as dragonflies and damselflies which prey on black flies) and restore the food chain. Wherever we are, each of us can do at least one small thing to support other species: replace patches of lawn/non-native plants with those native to that area and ecosystem, plant native trees, volunteer to clean up local rivers/creeks/parks/forests/beaches, remove fences and other obstacles that impede wildlife movement, put up birdfeeders, install nestboxes – the list goes on.
The Society for Biodiversity Preservation (SBP) is proud to be one of many nonprofit organizations across the world to be working on such projects. Apply for an SBP grant today to help local wildlife survive and thrive! If you cannot personally undertake such projects, donate money, time, and other resources to support those who do. In addition to funding local wildlife projects, this year SBP is donating to RRP and SOAR to support their biodiversity restoration efforts. Let’s take action and make a difference before it is too late.
R. Prasad, 11 June 2019. Why is so much of the US under water? BBC News https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48589651
J. Williams, Jun 5, 2019. For farmers, record flooding and a wet spring mean many fields can’t be planted. PBS Newshour https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/for-farmers-record-flooding-and-a-wet-spring-mean-many-fields-cant-be-planted
Raptor Resource Project (RRP) https://www.raptorresource.org/about-us/
US Fish and Wildlife Service: Federal Laws that Protect Bald Eagles https://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/protect/laws.html
Flight of the Bald Eagles – ArcGIS project: http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=0155b5d1d139491d83170def7f4794f2
Purdue University Medical Entomology: https://extension.entm.purdue.edu/publichealth/insects/blackfly.html
Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR) https://soarraptors.org/
S. Harrington, April 2, 2019. Did climate change cause the flooding in the Midwest and Plains? Yale Climate Connections. https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/04/did-climate-change-cause-midwest-flooding/