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.

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.

Other theories of why the birds are disappearing focus on the breeding grounds in North America, where the birds nest from April to September. Elm trees, which are a favorite nesting place of orioles, are nearly nonexistent today due to the spread of Dutch elm disease since the 1950s.

Urbanization further encroaches on the forest habitat. Since the 1960s, the amount of urban land in Maryland, for instance, has tripled where city garbage attracts crows, squirrels, raccoons, and blue jays, all of which will eat orioles.

But the orioles act as a natural insecticide, ridding gardens of ants, wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, and gypsy moth caterpillars. They are also known to help themselves to peas, cherries, and apples.

A different explanation comes from Jeff Price, director of the US Important Bird Areas Program at the American Bird Conservancy in Boulder, Colo. He studies climate change and makes projections about where birds will be if the current trends continue.

One model predicts that within 100 years, there will be no more Baltimore orioles in the Baltimore area. The oriole is nearly extinct in parts of Louisiana, where it was once common and where Mr. Price points out there have been few changes to the species' habitat.

Questions continue

But Price, along with other scientists, emphasizes that there are probably many factors contributing to an overall decline in the migrating birds.

"I'm not sure anyone really knows what the cause is," says Mr. Mehlman of the Nature Conservancy. "But we're not in a position to wait around for all of the scientific data to come in."

Until the problem is pinpointed, activists want to preserve the forest habitats in both the breeding grounds in North America and the wintering grounds in Latin America, which are home not only to the oriole but to 600 other species of migratory birds.

The Nature Conservancy runs a program called Wings of the Americas that coordinates conservation efforts in North and Latin America. Activists on either end of the birds' migration path share information and financial resources. The program promotes eco-tourism by showing the Latin Americans how they can make money by protecting bird habitats.

In Maryland, to improve water quality and at the same time preserve bird habitats, the Department of Natural Resources is aiming to plant 600 miles of forest buffer along waterways by 2020. In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Act targets large forested areas for conservation.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Baltimore Orioles baseball team hope to make Migratory Bird Day an annual event at the stadium, and to expand the roster of birds to feature.

Fans learn about the birds not only through the trading cards that are given out to fans on bird day, but also through pre-game speakers, statistics, and video footage broadcast on the stadium's scoreboard throughout the game.

This May 16th, the featured bird will most likely be the peregrine falcon. (Nobody is drawing attention to the fact that when it needs to, the peregrine will snack on orioles.)

What you can do for the orioles:

* Provide habitat by planting native trees and shrubs in your yard and along streams and rivers.

* Keep your cat indoors. Free-roaming cats kill millions of songbirds each year.

* Create refueling stations for migrating orioles by leaving sliced citrus fruit or apples on a table or bird feeder, especially during August and September.

* Familiarize yourself with local land-use legislation and support organizations that preserve wildlife habitats.

Resources on the web

For general information on birding and links to regional resources:

Peterson Online Birds:

Birding on the Web:

For bird counts and more scientific information:

Birdsource and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

The Breeding Bird Survey

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