2017 Online - Silver

In an engaging report from the South Hills of Idaho, Nick Neely wrote about the discovery and probable disappearance of North America’s newest bird species, the Cassia crossbill. The reddish birds have crowbar-like beaks that are capable of prying open the toughest cones from lodgepole pines, the birds’ seed source and co-evolutionary partners on which they entirely depend. University of Wyoming ecologist Craig Benkman and his colleagues discovered the Cassia crossbill in a range of just 27 square miles of lodgepole forest. They eventually convinced the American Ornithologists Union that the bird should be considered a separate species of crossbill, one that is isolated from squirrels as competitors for the precious lodgepole cones. But just as the bird has become eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, its future is uncertain: an increasing number of days over 90 degrees has disrupted the cycle of seed dispersal from lodgepole cones. Under stress due to climate change, the lodgepole pine may disappear from southern Idaho by 2080, along with the colorful bird that is so dependent upon it. “Neely has deftly combined strong on-the-scene science reporting, with a great use of language, to tell a fascinating story of ecology, evolution and climate change, all tied up in one little bird,” said Sarah Zielinski, managing editor, Science News for Students. “It’s satisfying to see this story recognized, because I nursed it along for many years, visiting with Craig Benkman in Idaho’s South Hills multiple times, until the Cassia crossbill was finally declared a new species,” Neely said. “My goal with this story was to show, as John Muir wrote, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.’ This is especially true in ecology.”