Saturday, December 4, 2021

I wish I would have known about this disturbing end-of-an-era species before I died

Image: Kirk Hutchins / Don Hansen / National Geographic Magazine

People in Europe, Asia and North America have fished the giant black-necked stork since the close of the Ice Age, back to when this bird was preying on woolly mammoths. The black-necked stork first nested on human continents 12,000 years ago, but today, black-necked storks still kill people in search of food, especially in Argentina and Paraguay. The bird’s common name is Steller’s sea eagle, and it’s the most abundant stork species.

Each year, more than 40 people are killed by storks, according to data collected in northern Argentina and Paraguay. This species, long regarded as a lesser threat to human lives than the other, more destructive storks, is now showing signs of calling it quits.

“Human-stork interaction became a uniquely nasty, escalating story,” Arnaud Huet, an internationally renowned stork expert at the World Wildlife Fund, told National Geographic.

Huet was referring to violence in the early days of humans and storks. The southern hemisphere’s storks were initially chosen as food to supplement people’s diets, or, as archaeologists say, as tools to murder large mammalian targets.

Image: Arnaud Huet / National Geographic Magazine

A 12,000-year-old stone skeleton, which was unearthed in the Argentine Aysén Desert in May of 2017, contained some of the oldest stork feathers ever found. The same team of archaeologists later found bird poop in the area, and a team from the University of Colorado Boulder took DNA from storks during a 2017 expedition. Scientists did confirm from the DNA that the people who were pecking for food found the storks tasty.

The storks of today are now known to be veering away from human people, and instead targeting trees, the researchers found. You can read more about these storks here.

The researchers used a mixture of modern and ancient fossil records and modern-day stork DNA gathered from individuals. Their analysis found that by 3,400 years ago, the people who were hunting birds were using lethal force against black-necked storks. They shot them. They used stonings. They caught the birds by dragging them by their feet.

Today, researchers have essentially given up on killing the birds, with the exception of protection areas set up by the United Nations to help preserve storks.

The researchers believe that storks are reorienting themselves, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that people have given up killing them, as William Snyder, the director of the Center for Storks in the Fossil Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Smithsonian Magazine.

“There is no concerted effort to prevent harm from storks,” Snyder said. “Even within protected areas, there is a concerted effort to eat these birds.”

That “concerted effort” involves more than the adults who eat storks, of course. Among baby storks, there’s also an abundance of storks pestering other birds of prey, whose offspring especially need their mother’s love and protection.

This week, the State Department at the US Department of Agriculture released the results of the first-ever study of what comes between species. Storks and other sea eagles (which, like black-necked storks, also be attacked by foxes) were the only birds to have their numbers cut in half over the past 40 years. There are now more than 42,000 beach nesting pairs of sea eagles, compared to the historic number of 91,000 pairs in 1970.

The American Bird Conservancy says that sea eagles are the No. 1 land predator, and being a very aggressive, biting bird, often the prey of many predators. The one thing that sea eagles do that few other birds can do — and fewer than 10 other birds do as well — is to kill the prey of other birds of prey, a system called circuit cooperation.

The black-necked stork, however, is not part of this (actually, the UN warns against killing storks, period). It’s hard to predict how many species of birds will be considered endangered or threatened in the next five to 15 years, but the WWF says that at this moment, 26 bird species are listed as facing “a high likelihood of extinction within our lifetimes”.

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