PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 141, Summer 2005: Notes and Discoveries from the Field

Tales of 21st-century conservation


Lessons Learned from Two Small Gray Birds

Ellie M. Cohen

Executive Director's Column
Return of the Least Bell's Vireo
Mystery Oil Spill
Bird Bio
Eastern Sierra
Seabirds at Vandenberg
Farallon Auklet News Flash

When I first heard about the 400 or so Cassin's Auklets on the Farallones abandoning their egg-laden nests en masse in May (see page 7), I was aghast. Birds can be excellent, real-time indicators of environmental health. What were these gray seabirds, not much larger than my fist, telling us?

There was no official "El Niño" occurring, yet the water off Central California's coast was warmer. Southerly rain showers replaced the typical northwest winds that drive up nutrient-rich cold water to feed a normally bountiful food web. PRBO biologists and other scientists reported an absence of krill, juvenile rockfish and squid that seabirds, whales, seals, salmon and other marine wildlife feed on, and higher than usual rates of beached seabirds due to starvation.

Are we witnessing the beginnings of a food web collapse due to global warming or a natural cycling unknown to science? We may not know the answer for years or decades. Nonetheless, this relatively tiny seabird, having survived for millennia on the vagaries of the open ocean, is providing remarkable--albeit sobering--insights into the complex interactions of climate, water temperature, currents, and food webs.

Another small gray bird captured our attention this spring (see page 1), telling us a rather different story. The amazing finding of the endangered Least Bell's Vireo breeding in a three-year-old Central Valley restoration site truly inspires hope!

River Partners replanted the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge site according to PRBO's recommendations, developed from over a decade of bird population studies in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, California Department of Fish and Game, CALFED and many others.

The return of this mouse-sized gray songbird to a region virtually stripped of its natural habitat features after a century of development and agriculture is uplifting.

The tale of these two gray birds--the auklet's disturbing abandonment and the vireo's remarkable return--demonstrates the unique value of PRBO's bird ecology science to successful conservation, and it highlights the need to ensure that our work continues well into the 21st century.

Our Lasting Legacy campaign (see page 12) is making great strides in doing just that!

I am delighted to report that in early June we received a $500,000 anonymous gift towards the purchase of our new San Francisco Bay Research Center, directly adjacent to the Petaluma wetlands

We anticipate that construction of the building shell will be completed in August, that we will close escrow in mid- September, and that the interior buildout will then begin. Staff could start moving in by January 2006!

To date we have raised about $2.2 million towards our goal of $8.3 million, which includes $5.5 million to purchase and move into our new Center, $500,000 for field stations, and $2.3 million for an endowment and campaign expenses. We are securing a bank loan and a secondary loan, if needed.

With your generous support, we can pay off the loans quickly and put funds where they are needed most, to advance PRBO's vital work!

Over the next few months we will be asking you directly to help us reach our campaign goals and meet the ever-increasing demand for PRBO's conservation science. Thank you in advance for being as generous as possible. Your gifts will help ensure that PRBO scientists will continue to interpret the tales of the small gray birds to the benefit of wildlife and human society for decades to come!

Please see for recent photos of our new Center under construction as well as more information on the Lasting Legacy campaign.

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