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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Defaulting to climate change – science’s cardinal sin

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The Northern Cardinal reminds us to be good scientists

By Bob Confer,

As you would imagine, not only do I spend a lot of time in nature, I spend a lot of time reading about it, too.

I have a decent-sized library that I’ve accumulated over a whole lifetime of studying the outdoors, I subscribe to a few birding journals, and I make sure to read every article in the newspaper that discusses nature and the environment.

Over the past decade or so I’ve developed something of a pet peeve when reading some of the articles in those periodicals and papers. I cringe every time studies or opinions associated with them cite climate change as the sole reason for any change in the behaviors, ranges, or populations of wildlife. Many times, I will even stop reading such an article just out of frustration over its single-mindedness.

I love science, but not sloppy science.

It has gotten to the point that many scientists default to climate change as all their theories endgames. It’s especially pronounced in younger biologists (by young, I mean in their 20s and 30s) because global warming has been the rallying cry for all the world’s change at every level of their education, from elementary school through their masters or doctoral studies. It’s inescapable from both their studies and society — it’s in the news, it’s in the marketing, it’s in the messaging. I also can’t help but think there’s some sort of peer pressure involved, too – if they don’t go all in with this it, do they feel they’ll be deemed a heretic or not receive the support, resources, or funding they need?

It’s frustrating to me because while weaker winters may be one part of the reason for changes in how species act, it may not be a reason at all or it could be a piece of a more elaborate puzzle that gives short shrift to other things we should be more cognizant of from invasive species forever transforming habitats, to man’s continued alteration of the landscape, to the chemicals disrupting poisoning the water, to the insecticides totally disrupting certain regional — if not global — food chains.     

To me, one of the bellwethers of this over-focus on the weather is the northern cardinal.

Northern cardinals weren’t always northern in their presence. They were once considered a bird of the south.

Ornithologists of the 1800s and early 1900s like James DeKay and Elon Howard Eaton noted only a few cardinals in their studies of the birds of New York, with some in the state’s coastal lowlands and the Hudson Valley.

Over the course of the 1900s, the fortunes changed for cardinals and they spread across the state like a sort of wildfire that matches their brilliant hue. They are now common throughout New York, except for the higher elevations of the Adirondacks and Catskills. They’ve even moved into southern Ontario in good numbers.  

If you give the subject of this bird’s northward movements a cursory Google search you’ll see many recent articles attributing this to climate change. Mind you, this is only a new belief with cardinals, a thought that’s been kind of mainstreamed over the past 10 years.

Prior to that, ornithologists, birders, and amateur naturalists like myself had a bevy of reasons that, together, are far more reasonable assertions for the expansion of the bird’s range over the 20th century. Those reasons are:

  • The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 allowed cardinals to flourish after being on the brink. Prior to that important law, many hundreds of thousands of these birds were killed by hunters every year so their brilliant red feathers could adorn women’s hats 
  • Over the course of that century, countless family farms disappeared. That former open space has been replaced with woodlands. Especially in the lower elevations of New York, many of these burgeoning woodlots spend decades as brush, chock full of undergrowth of small trees, shrubs, and grasses, all grown tightly together. That’s prime cardinal habitat
  • The beautification and manicuring of backyards in suburban and rural locations alike — with their hedges, bushes, and vines – has created millions of small pockets of cardinal habitat where, being in the presence of people, it has led to fewer encounters with predators
  • Cardinals are beloved by all who see them, and the male’s brilliant red color lends so much to the sometime dreary landscapes of our winter. It’s no wonder that the bird feeding industry markets itself around these beautiful birds, with an emphasis on feeders and feeds perfect for the seed-cracking cardinals. 50 million Americans now feed birds. Quite literally, the explosive growth in the popularity of birdfeeding was custom made for cardinals and the presence of endless supplies of food sustains them through the winter months

As you can see, all of those are far more significant and likely than “it got warmer”.

I’ll admit there are some cases where that actually seems to be the only answer possible. For example, I can’t explain the northern progression of Carolina wrens that now stay all year long, in good numbers, other than the fact that winters aren’t so deeply cold, long, and buried under snow as they once were.

But, that’s not the norm. Most species have a litany of reasons for what they do and why they do it.

Consider this a call to nature hobbyists, newspaper reporters, science teachers, and scientists: Defaulting to climate change is one of the cardinal sins of modern biology. The natural world is impacted by so many more things than it. Be careful how you perceive the “why” and “how” behind nature and reason about its nuances. Think beyond one causal event, ponder the possibilities, and look past what’s popular. Science was never meant to be easy. 

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