Subsistence Harvest and Indigenous Knowledge in Alaska

Liliana Naves

Linked paper: Shorebird subsistence harvest and indigenous knowledge in Alaska: Informing harvest management and engaging users in shorebird conservation by L.C. Naves, J.M. Keating, T.L. Tibbitts, and D.R. Ruthrauff, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

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Sharing a meal of wild foods with the James family at the community of Platinum, after an indigenous knowledge interview. Photo by Lili Naves, ADF&G Division of Subsistence.

Many shorebirds migrate across continents and oceans, relying on key areas to rest, eat, and refuel. Habitat loss, climate change, and other factors are affecting these birds at their breeding, migration, and wintering grounds. Numbers of long-distance migrating shorebirds that breed in North America are down by about 50% since the mid-1970s.

Biologists and social scientists joined forces in this interdisciplinary study to quantify shorebird harvest and document indigenous knowledge in Alaska. We wanted to learn about the importance of shorebirds as food and cultural resources, what Yup’ik people know about shorebirds, and how they could join in conservation efforts. We worked within the Harvest Assessment Program of the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council.

Twelve million shorebirds converge in Alaska every summer to breed, then migrate to winter in the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia. The Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska provides critical habitat and food for these shorebirds. The delta is also the homeland of the indigenous Yup’ik people. For thousands of years, Yup’ik people have shared this vast wetland with shorebirds. Shorebirds represent only 1% of the subsistence bird harvest in Alaska, but this harvest includes species of conservation concern, in particular the Bar-tailed Godwit. These birds’ population size and adult survival have been declining, and some annual harvest estimates seemed high.

We generated Alaska-wide harvest estimates using a large dataset (775 community-years!) including surveys conducted between 1990 and 2015. The total harvest was about 2,800 shorebirds per year. Godwits were about 1,100 birds per year, and based on species distribution, these were all most likely Bar-tailed Godwits. The egg harvest was about 4,700 eggs per year.

The indigenous knowledge research for this study focused on the Yup’ik culture of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Working with tribal councils, we interviewed 80 respondents in 5 communities in 2017. We asked about shorebird ethnotaxonomy (how local people name birds and categorize species), importance for subsistence, place names, ecology, and concerns. Traditional knowledge is based on observation and experience accumulated over generations by people living in close contact with nature. We learned that shorebirds are known mostly by specialists. Yup’ik people name shorebirds in their Native language, so we worked with a translator. We learned 24 Yup’ik shorebird names, 7 of which were more widely known among our respondents. Most names are multi-species categories. Some names are onomatopoeic. For instance, the Yup’ik name for Wilson’s Snipe is Kukukuaq, after the sound made during their distinctive winnow display. Place names may tell about sites important for birds: Tevatevaaq Bay is a shallow, protected bay that indeed looks like a gathering place for the Tevatevaaq (Bar-tailed Godwit).

Shorebirds and their eggs are not primary food sources, but are harvested in times of scarcity. Traditionally, children learning to hunt focus on small birds, including shorebirds. Shorebirds are a joyful part of nature and connect people with their environment, traditional culture, and language. Yup’ik people have noticed a decline in local shorebird numbers in recent decades. Based on traditional knowledge, they understand that animals, people, and the land are interconnected. If populations of shorebirds or other animals are not doing well, something is out of balance in nature, and that thing may finally also affect people.

Whether a harvest is sustainable depends on both harvest levels and on the status of the bird populations being harvested. Data gaps still prevent robust assessments of shorebird harvest sustainability, but Bar-tailed Godwit populations currently have low harvest potential, and recent sharp declines in shorebird populations mean that we need to account for uncertainty in harvest sustainability in our conservation efforts. Shorebirds now depend on citizens, biologists, and managers to protect and restore their habitats. It is important to include indigenous peoples and other stakeholders in shorebird conservation along flyways. This study is already the basis for culture-focused conservation outreach efforts in western Alaska. As a next step, we want to collaboratively develop conservation approaches that benefit shorebirds as well as the well-being of these subsistence communities. We all play a role in our relationships with nature!

Welcome to the New AOS Fellows, Honorary Fellows, & Elective Members

At our annual meeting each year, we officially welcome the new classes of Fellows, Honorary Fellows, and Elective Members of AOS. Individuals are elected to these special membership classes in recognition of their contributions to ornithology and to AOS. Congratulations to the newest members of these honored groups, who were voted in at our 2019 annual meeting in Anchorage last month! Continue reading “Welcome to the New AOS Fellows, Honorary Fellows, & Elective Members”

Congratulations to the 2019 Student Presentation Award Winners

Every year, the American Ornithological Society bestows a range of Student Presentation Awards to students at all levels (undergraduate, masters, and doctoral) who present outstanding posters or oral presentations at the our annual meeting. With 120 students competing for awards at this year’s recent annual meeting in Anchorage, our 70-plus volunteer judges had their work cut out for them! Congratulations to all of this year’s winners, listed below, each of whom received a $500 honorarium with their award, and congratulations as well to every single student who presented research at this year’s meeting — your contributions helped make the Anchorage meeting a huge success! Continue reading “Congratulations to the 2019 Student Presentation Award Winners”

PRESS RELEASE: Additions, Deletions, & Changes to the Official List of North American Birds

The latest supplement to the American Ornithological Society’s checklist of North and Middle American birds is being published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, and it includes several major updates to the organization of the continent’s bird species. The official authority on the names and classification of the region’s birds, the checklist is consulted by birdwatchers and professional scientists alike and has been published since 1886.

Birdwatchers eager to build their “life lists” will be especially interested in the five species added to the checklist due to “splits,” where scientists have determined that bird populations once believed to be part of the same species are actually distinct; these newly-recognized species include the Choco Screech-Owl, Socorro Parakeet, and Stejneger’s Scoter. Eight species from Eurasia and South America have also been added to the list as a result of recent sightings in North America, and one species familiar to parrot fanciers, the Budgerigar, was removed from the list. Native to Australia, escaped pet “budgies” established a wild breeding population in central Florida in the 1950s. However, the population had been declining for decades, and as of 2014, Florida’s budgies have died out, possibly due to competition for nest sites from other non-native birds.

More than just a list that species are added to and deleted from, however, the checklist is also the authority on how North America’s bird species are sorted into genera and families based on their evolutionary relationships. This year, new genetic data led to the rearrangement of several of these groups. A genus of Neotropical tanagers called Tangara was split up, and a group of seabirds known as storm-petrels that were previously classified into two genera have now been lumped into a single genus called Hydrobates. AOS’s North American Classification Committee, the group of scientists responsible for the checklist, also made several tweaks to the names and classifications of hummingbird species, including taking the step of changing the official English name of one species that occurs in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico from “Blue-throated Hummingbird” to “Blue-throated Mountain-gem.”

“There are seven hummingbird species in the genus Lampornis, and all but two of them already had the common name ‘mountain-gem,’” explains committee chair Terry Chesser, USGS Research Zoologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. “Usually we don’t like to change the English names just to make them ‘better,’ because you could go through and make practically any bird name better if you wanted to, but in this case we thought it was worthwhile. We hope that calling all the birds in that genus by the name ‘mountain-gem’ will help birders understand a little bit more about the birds they’re looking at, both in terms of associating these seven species with each other and in recognizing them as distinct from species in other genera simply called ‘hummingbird.’”

Sixtieth Supplement to the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list of North American Birds is available at https://academic.oup.com/auk/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/auk/ukz042.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology published by the American Ornithological Society. The Auk commenced publication in 1884 and in 2009 was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

Tracking Guam’s snake survivors

Henry Pollock

Linked paper: Pervasive impacts of invasive brown treesnakes drive low fledgling survival in endangered Micronesian Starlings (Aplonis opaca) on Guam by H.S. Pollock, J.A. Savidge, M. Kastner, T.F. Seibert, and T.M. Jones, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

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A Micronesian Starling. Photo by Martin Kastner.

For bird aficionados, waking up on Guam can be a surreal experience. The soundscape is nearly devoid of birdsong other than the clucking of chickens and the occasional chirp of a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Guam’s silent forests are the work of the brown treesnake, an invasive predator that was accidentally introduced to the island after World War II. Following its initial establishment on Guam, the brown treesnake population exploded, causing the extirpation of ten out of the island’s twelve native forest bird species within a few decades. However, a couple of species have managed to persist, and understanding how they’ve managed this feat in the face of such a formidable predator can inform future avian conservation strategies and snake suppression efforts on Guam.

Our research focused on the Micronesian Starling or Sali, a glossy black, gregarious bird that is a staple of forests throughout the Mariana Islands. On Guam, Sali declined precipitously following the introduction of the brown treesnake, but a small population has managed to persist in an urbanized landscape on Andersen Air Force Base in northern Guam. To understand why Sali have survived while so many other bird species have disappeared, we set out to study fledgling survival. The post-fledging period, when a bird has left its nest but is still dependent on its parents, is a period of great vulnerability, because young birds are often clumsy, sedentary, and less equipped to evade predators than adults.

To track fledglings through this crucial period, we attached small radio transmitters to Sali just before they left the nest and then came back each day to see whether our birds had survived the previous night and where they were spending their time. All of our birds fledged from nest boxes in an urban housing area, and tracking young birds through backyards on a military base was an interesting experience. We had regular run-ins with the military security forces, as well as also a lot of curious homeowners wondering what exactly we were doing decked out in field gear and holding large antennas! After a while, though, people got to know us, and many were truly interested in what we were doing and excited to know that they had a locally endangered bird species in their own neighborhood.

Our findings were staggering: only 25% of the fledglings survived, one of the lowest fledgling survival rates ever recorded for any bird species. The primary culprit was, of course, the brown treesnake, which caused approximately 60% of all mortality. However, cats were also an important source of mortality, responsible for around 20% of fledgling deaths. Beyond establishing these baseline numbers, however, we were also able to identify spatial patterns of predation risk and provide important management recommendations for future bird conservation on Guam.

We found that fledglings from nest boxes closer to the forest were more likely to be killed by brown treesnakes, indicating that locating nest boxes in core urban areas away from the forest perimeter would maximize fledgling survival. Furthermore, our data showed that brown treesnake predation actually extended weeks beyond the vulnerable post-fledging period, demonstrating again that these snakes are uniquely pernicious predators and that intensified snake control efforts are needed. We hope that our research provides impetus for further controlling the invasive brown treesnake and serves as a stepping stone for bringing birds back to Guam and enriching the island’s soundscape once again.