Baseball Pitches Plight of the Baltimore Oriole
One of the most popular giveaways at Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore last season was packs of trading cards with orioles on the front and statistics on the back. These featured orioles could really fly around the bases, but they were not on the team. Instead, the cards honored the birds themselves: the Baltimore and Bullock's orioles.Skip to next paragraph
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The promotion was part of International Migratory Bird Day, an annual event held on the second Saturday in May to raise awareness about the plight of the 600 species of birds that spend their summers in the United States, then fly south to Central and Latin America for the winter.
While the Baltimore Orioles baseball team has been rising in the standings in the last decade, its feathered namesake has been declining in numbers since 1980.
"If we aren't concerned with our mascot, eventually there won't be a mascot," says an assistant to Peter Angelos, the team's owner.
In addition to hosting the event with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, in 1989 the team changed its logo from a cartoon bird to a more realistic portrayal, and this year altered the design to make it more "ornithologically correct."
Because of the popular baseball team, the Baltimore oriole is a household name, and is being used to attract attention to the more than 25 percent of North American species of migratory birds that are in danger. While the number of orioles has declined 1 to 3 percent per year, the annual decline in population of some species of birds is up in the double digits, according to the Breeding Bird Survey.
Many identify with the orioles species, bird experts say. "For so long, it was a really common bird," says David Mehlman, a conservation ornithologist at the Nature Conservancy in Boston. "It was in everyone's front yard. Only by examining the breeding surveys do we detect a small but persistent decline in the population."
Habitat and climate change
The scientific community disagrees over what is causing the drop in oriole populations. Theories center on habitat and climate changes in both the bird's breeding grounds in the North and the wintering grounds in the South. Some experts even say that the population is not dropping at all, but just shifting.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington is convinced that the main culprit is the growing popularity of sun-grown coffee plantations in Latin America.
About 20 years ago, coffee farmers started to "technify" their plantations to get higher yields. That involved clear-cutting forest and using 10 times more chemicals to fertilize and control weeds and insects. But the forest canopy, under which "shade" coffee is grown, is where birds live during the winter. "If you want to make sure you see a Baltimore oriole, go to a shade-coffee farm," says Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. "They're the bird that most loves and most relies on shade plantations."
So two years ago, Mr. Greenberg tested his hypothesis that sun-grown coffee harms migratory birds; the first data he checked were population trends for the oriole. He found that the bird was in decline across different regions. He now calls the oriole "the poster child for shade-grown coffee."
While there are four distributors of bird-friendly shade coffee in the US, Greenberg says that a further distinction should be made between traditional shade plantations, which look like a forest, and those shaded only by a few trees.
The latter are better than no trees at all, but they cannot support nearly as many birds because the orioles do not have enough trees to live in and eat from and do not attract enough insects. He advocates a star system like that of rating restaurants to inform consumers just how bird-friendly the coffee is.
"If shade is shade, then the big producers will just get a few trees and produce shade coffee," he says.