Saturday, July 9, 2011

Red Knots in a Big Bind

for a higher definition view

    I try to stay off the soapbox in this forum, but today has to be an exception.  A report appeared this spring on the population of Red Knots wintering in Tierra de Fuego.

Among its conclusions were that the number of Red Knots of the rufa subspecies in Tierra del Fuego had fallen from 16,000 to 11,000 and that the TOTAL population of  rufa was 25,000. This subspecies (Calidris canutus rufa) is the Red Knot that we see on the east coast of the US, and apart from some birds of the roselaari subspecies that join them in Florida, it’s all we have.  It may be true that the Red Knot can be found worldwide, but for most US birders, rufa  is the ballgame.

Now 25,000 may sound like a lot of birds.  It isn’t.  Consider that the population of rufa Red Knots in 1992 was 150,000. We now have lost 5 out of 6 birds.  Consider that in 1893 a group of hunters shipped 4000 Red Knots from Cape Cod to Boston in barrels after one night’s shooting.  Consider that in the 1920s, ornithologist Alexander Sprunt tried to shoot one Red Knot flying by (for a museum display) and they were so thick that he accidentally got thirteen. That’s how it was.  Now there are 25,000, period.  The decline may not be on the same scale as tigers or rhinos, but it is constant, and the reason is the same…desire.

I think that most birders bemoan the disappearance of the Eskimo Curlew, a wonderful shorebird with a mournful call that added to the ambiance of being on an autumn windswept beach in New England, and which brought the bright days of spring to Midwestern farms.  No more.  These trusting birds were hunted to death.  That was in the days of our great-grandparents.  If we could only bring them back.  The Red Knot is today’s Eskimo Curlew, and we can keep it from becoming our children’s regretted loss.

A lot of migratory birds are hunted along their routes.  Shorebirds, in particular fall to guns in places like Barbados, and certain areas of South America.  It may be a bit comforting to be able to blame “backward countries” for their barbarism in diminishing our birds, but for the Red Knot the enemy is us.  Red Knots have the unfortunate habit of depending on very specific areas during migration.  More than most birds.  Their most important one is Delaware Bay.  Here, for a few days in May, they gorge on the eggs of horseshoe crabs, laid in the sand of the beaches.  They get fat.  They fly on to the shores of the Arctic Ocean to breed.  Or at least they used to. Horseshoe crabs are now hard to find in Delaware Bay.  The birds leave hungry and weak.  They can’t sustain a decent breeding effort in the Arctic.  No kids for enough years and the population plummets.  That is the story of the Red Knot.

So what happened to the Horseshoe Crabs?  Back in the 1970’s when I used to go to Port Mahon, Delaware to see the knots, people drove garbage truck-sized vehicles along the beach and collected crabs by the truckful.  They said it was for fertilizer.  Today the problem is sushi.  People don’t eat horseshoe crabs, but it is widely used as bait in traps to catch other seafood. The best known is the Unagi (eels) that millions of people worldwide enjoy in sushi bars every day.  Just like the penises of tigers, and the horns of rhinos, the lives of crabs and knots are forfeit so that people can have their delicacy du jour.

And of course, efforts by the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to limit the crab harvest rapidly become mired in jobs, jobs, jobs.  It’s a worn out story.  So what is the solution?  Make the Japanese give up their evening eels?  Seed the beaches with caviar during mid-May?  Birders screaming at officials is probably the best bet.  One thing is certain.  If birders don’t lead the way, then we will see the disappearance of a creature not hidden in some southern swamp, but on the beach right in front of our eyes.  Or maybe just hop a plane to Alaska.


  1. This article was very helpful to me. I never heard of the Red Knot Bird. They are very interesting they like cold weather not like other bird they fly south to get warm.Me and my husband are interested in taking a vacation to Tierra de Fuego to see the birds up close and take pictures. The Red Knot bird is a very rare bird and i would love to see it!

  2. There are people who are trying to convince the hunters in Barbados to make some changes, but it's tough getting them to change. I think there might be some machoism in that case and that can be a difficult hurdle. Argentina has a fairly decent record of protecting extremely rare birds, but a few other countries on the red knot's route do very poorly with conservation. I don't blame people who are huntng for food and accidentally shoot or kill one. It's the people who want to slaughter everything they see that are the most difficult to deal with.

    And, they're trying to work with the horseshoe crab issue here, too.