Washington, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — North America's skies are lonelier and quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970, a comprehensive study shows.
The new study focuses on the drop in sheer numbers of birds, not extinctions. The bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion nearly half a century ago and has fallen 29% to about 7.2 billion birds, according to a study in Thursday's journal Science .
"People need to pay attention to the birds around them because they are slowly disappearing," said study lead author Kenneth Rosenberg, a Cornell University conservation scientist. "One of the scary things about the results is that it is happening right under our eyes. We might not even notice it until it's too late."
Rosenberg and colleagues projected population data using weather radar, 13 different bird surveys going back to 1970 and computer modeling to come up with trends for 529 species of North American birds. That's not all species, but more than three-quarters of them and most of the missed species are quite rare, Rosenberg said.
Using weather radar data, which captures flocks of migrating birds, is a new method, he said.
"This is a landmark paper. It's put numbers to everyone's fears about what's going on," said Joel Cracraft, curator-in-charge for ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History, who wasn't part of the study.
"It's even more stark than what many of us might have guessed," Cracraft said.
Every year University of Connecticut's Margaret Rubega, the state ornithologist, gets calls from people noticing fewer birds. And this study, which she wasn't part of, highlights an important problem, she said.
"If you came out of your house one morning and noticed that a third of all the houses in your neighborhood were empty, you'd rightly conclude that something threatening was going on," Rubega said in an email. "3 billion of our neighbors, the ones who eat the bugs that destroy our food plants and carry diseases like equine encephalitis, are gone. I think we all ought to think that's threatening."
Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet, Rosenberg said.
The common house sparrow was at the top of the list for losses, as were many other sparrows. The population of eastern meadowlarks has shriveled by more than three-quarters with the western meadowlark nearly as hard hit. Bobwhite quail numbers are down 80%, Rosenberg said.
Grassland birds in general are less than half what they used to be, he said.
Not all bird populations are shrinking. For example, bluebirds are increasing, mostly because people have worked hard to get their numbers up.
Rosenberg, a birdwatcher since he was 3, has seen this firsthand over more than 60 years. When he was younger there would be "invasions" of evening grosbeaks that his father would take him to see in Upstate New York with 200 to 300 birds around one feeder. Now, he said, people get excited when they see 10 grosbeaks.
The research only covered wild birds, not domesticated ones such as chickens.
Rosenberg's study didn't go into what's making wild birds dwindle away, but he pointed to past studies that blame habitat loss, cats and windows.
"Every field you lose, you lose the birds from that field," he said. "We know that so many things are killing birds in large numbers, like cats and windows."
Experts say habitat loss was the No. 1 reason for bird loss. A 2015 study said cats kill 2.6 billion birds each year in the United States and Canada, while window collisions kill another 624 million and cars another 214 million.
That's why people can do their part by keeping cats indoors, treating their home windows to reduce the likelihood that birds will crash into them, stopping pesticide and insecticide use at home and buying coffee grown on farms with forest-like habitat, said Sara Hallager, bird curator at the Smithsonian Institution.
"We can reverse that trend," Hallager said. "We can turn the tide."
New York, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump asked a federal court Thursday to block an effort by New York prosecutors to obtain his tax returns as part of a criminal investigation, opening another front in the president's efforts to keep his financial information private.
Trump's attorneys filed a lawsuit against Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who recently subpoenaed the president's accounting firm for eight years of his state and federal returns as part of an investigation into payments made to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
They called the subpoena a "bad faith effort to harass" Trump and said Vance, a Democrat, had overstepped his constitutional authority.
"Virtually 'all legal commenters agree' that a sitting President of the United States is not 'subject to the criminal process' while he is in office," Trump's lawyers wrote. "Yet a county prosecutor in New York, for what appears to be the first time in our nation's history, is attempting to do just that.
The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court, asks U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero to declare the subpoena unenforceable until Trump leaves office.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said the lawsuit is intended "to address the significant constitutional issues at stake in this case."
A spokesman for Vance said his office had received the lawsuit "and will respond as appropriate in court." Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, declined to comment.
The lawsuit marks Trump's latest attempt to prevent his tax returns from being seen by Democratic investigators and comes as his campaign is fighting a new law in California requiring presidential candidates to release five years of tax returns as a condition of appearing on the state's March 2020 primary ballot.
Trump's campaign and the Republican National Committee have sued, and a hearing is set Thursday in federal court in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, Democratic-led congressional committees are also trying to obtain Trump's tax returns and other records that could provide a window into his finances. Trump and three of his children filed a lawsuit in April seeking to block two House committees from getting records that his longtime lender, Deutsche Bank, has said includes tax returns.
And in July, the president sued to block a new New York law that could allow a House committee to obtain his state tax returns.
Unlike those efforts, Vance is conducting a criminal probe. His subpoenas were issued by a grand jury.
The grand jury also subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records related to payments that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen helped arrange to the porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep either woman from speaking publicly about alleged affairs with Trump. He made one of the payments himself and arranged for American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, to make the other.
Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges that the payments amounted to illegal campaign contributions. Federal prosecutors did not charge Trump or anyone else involved in either arranging the payoffs or reimbursing Cohen through Trump's company.
Trump has denied any sexual relationship with either woman and said any payments were personal matters, not campaign expenses.
In a letter to Manhattan prosecutors made public as part of Thursday's lawsuit, Trump's lawyers, Marc Mukasey, William Consavoy and Alan Futerfas, wrote that the Trump Organization had already willingly provided "hundreds of documents" to Vance's team of investigators.
Vance is also pursuing a mortgage fraud case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Cairo, Sep 19(AP/UNB) — On her daily walks from home to her job at a primary school in the city of Port Sudan, Khalda Saber would urge people to join the protests against the three-decade rule of Sudan's autocratic President Omar al-Bashir.
At school, she rallied fellow teachers to join the pro-democracy uprising.
"I was telling them that there is nothing to lose, compared with what we have already lost. I was telling them that we have to take to the streets, demonstrate and express our rejection to what's happening," she said.
One January morning, two months after the protests erupted, plainclothes security forces snatched Saber off a bus and took her to the feared security and intelligence agency's local office.
There, she was detained in a newly built wing in a prison in the capital, Khartoum, alongside other protesters. She said security forces beat her and the other new arrivals for several hours.
Saber spent 40 days in detention. She was among many thousands of Sudanese women who risked their lives leading protests that eventually pushed the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April.
Several turbulent months followed as the protesters feared the military would cling to power, before a power-sharing deal in July. An interim, civilian-led government was sworn in last month.
Amid high hopes for a new era, many Sudanese women like Saber are looking for greater freedoms and equality. They seek to overturn many of the restrictive laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, that activists say stifle women's rights.
"For sure the whole Sudanese people have an interest in this revolution, but we, the women, had a bigger interest and motivation to make it happen," Saber said.
Al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, adopting a harsh interpretation of Islamic law that diminished the ability of women to participate meaningfully in public life, Human Rights Watch said in a 2015 report.
Public order laws imposed an Islamic dress code on women and restricted their ability to move freely or, if unmarried, with male colleagues, said Jehanne Henry, an associate Africa director at the New York-based rights group. Violators faced lashing in public and hefty fines.
But the end of al-Bashir's rule would lead Saber, who worked with a local NGO on women's rights issues for years, to flee the country. She spoke to The Associated Press from her home in self-imposed exile in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Along with her husband and two daughters, Saber escaped Sudan just two days after al-Bashir's ouster on April 11.
She says the family was threatened, mainly by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias that al-Bashir used in the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.
Saber had documented the RSF's rights violations, especially against women, through testimonies before and during the uprising.
"There were threats that they would attack my daughters," she said.
Following her release in March, she had immediately joined demonstrations at the main sit-in outside the military's headquarters in Khartoum. "At this time, the threats were increased. I found no way but to leave (the country)," she said.
Saber's story reflects a wave of violence against women during the protests. A Sudanese rights group, Sudanese Women Action, said in a report released earlier this month that women protesters faced an "unprecedented amount of violence and human rights violations" that amounted to "serious atrocities." Twelve women and a 7-year-old girl were killed in the protests, it said.
The group said it documented at least 26 cases of rape as security forces broke up the protest camp outside the military headquarters in early June. Dozens more rape cases weren't reported or documented "due to fears of reprisals or stigma," the group alleged.
During the uprising, Saber said countless women in both rural and urban areas participated in the demonstrations.
"It was not strange to see so many women at the front in the marches," she said. "This is because of growing awareness of women's rights. Women in time realized they have to stick to their demands."
After five months in Cairo, Saber remains wary. "Fear and dread still exist. It is too early to go back to Sudan," she said.
Sudan's democratic transition remains fragile. But the appointment of several women to the interim government — including Sudan's first female foreign minister, and two women in an 11-member sovereign council — has raised hopes that the role women played in the uprising will lead to change.
Henry, the HRW associate director, said the new government is committed to several legal reforms, including changes needed to achieve gender equality. Family and inheritance laws "clearly discriminate against women, limiting their ability to inherit property equally," she said.
Wifaq Gurashi, a women's rights activist in Khartoum, said the government should prioritize annulling all laws that restrict women's movement and freedoms, and implement policies that offer broader opportunities for women.
"With a little determination, we will be represented fairly," said Gurashi, who was herself briefly detained during the uprising in February.
But, she said, women face formidable obstacles.
"It's a long way (to go), especially to get rid of the traditional way of thinking in this masculine and authoritarian society," Gurashi said.
Kabul, Sep 19(AP/UNB) — A powerful early morning suicide truck bomb devastated a hospital in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding more than 90 others, an official said.
The Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the boming, have carried out nearly daily attacks since peace talks with the United States collapsed earlier this month.
Thursday's massive explosion destroyed part of the hospital in Qalat, the capital of southern Zabul province, and left a fleet of ambulances broken and battered.
Residents, many of whom had come to see their sick family members, used shawls and blankets to carry the wounded inside the destroyed building, while authorities scrambled to take the worst of the wounded to hospitals in nearby Kandahar.
In the hours immediately after the explosion, there were contradictory figures of the dead and wounded. The provincial governor's spokesman Gul Islam Seyal put the death toll at 12 but said authorities were on the scene sifting through the debris. Atta Jan Haqbayan, head of the provincial council, put the death toll at 20.
Morning prayers had just finished when worshippers were stunned by the ear-splitting blast that destroyed parts of a mosque adjacent to the hospital and the hospital building, said Mahboob Hakimi, a resident of Qalat.
Windows in his home nearly two kilometers (over one mile) away were shattered by the blast, he said.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, said in a tweet said the target was a nearby intelligence office, which he claimed was destroyed and "tens of intelligence operatives killed/wounded."
Haqbayan said the wall of the National Security Department (NDS) building was damaged. He couldn't say whether any personnel were among the casualties.
The provincial governor, Rahmatullah Yarmal, said many of the dead and wounded were women and children. On Twitter, an Afghan National Security Forces personnel posted a picture of a six-month-old child saying they were searching through the rubble for the parents and sought the public's help.
President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, condemned the attack in Zabul, tweeting that the Taliban "continue to target civilians while their leaders travel to Iran and Russia," a reference to the Taliban negotiators recent forays seeking support abroad.
The violence has further rattled the country as it prepares for national elections later this month. Two separate bombings on Tuesday, including one that targeted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's election rally, killed 48 people, mostly civilians. The Taliban took responsibility for both attacks.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban's spokesman for their political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, said in a tweet that a cease fire had been part of a U.S.-Taliban deal before President Trump declared it "dead." He did not elaborate and earlier defended Taliban attacks prior to an agreement signing, saying both sides in the conflict had carried out attacks.
Washington, Sept 19 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia spent billions to protect a kingdom built on oil but could not stop the suspected Iranian drone and missile attack, exposing gaps that even America's most advanced weaponry failed to fill.
In addition to deciding whether that firepower should be turned on Iran in retaliation, the Saudis and their American allies must now figure out how to prevent a repeat of last weekend's attack -- or worse, such as an assault on the Saudis' export facilities in the Persian Gulf or any of the desalination plants that supply drinking water.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked Wednesday on his way to Saudi Arabia how it was possible that the kingdom could have dropped its guard, failing to stop any of the low-flying cruise missiles or armed drones that struck the Abqaiq oil processing center -- the largest of its kind in the world -- and the Khurais oil field.
Even the best air defenses sometimes fail, he replied.
"We want to make sure that infrastructure and resources are put in place such that attacks like this would be less successful than this one appears to have been."
Easier said than done.
"This is an attack of a scale we've just not seen before," Pompeo said. He called the strike "an act of war" but not say what military response might follow.
President Donald Trump, in California on a political fundraising trip, said, "We know very much what happened." But he, too, was noncommittal on whether he would order U.S. military retaliation.
Saudi Arabia has multiple batteries of advanced U.S. Patriot air defense missiles, which are meant to shoot down hostile aircraft or shorter-range ballistic missiles. Patriots provide "point defense" -- not protection of wide swaths of territory -- and it's unclear whether any were positioned close to the oil sites.
The U.S. provides intelligence and surveillance support to the Saudi military, but that, too, has its limitations.
"We don't have an unblinking eye over the entire Middle East at all times," said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The U.S. military this summer returned American forces to Saudi Arabia, at Prince Sultan air base south of Riyadh, after an absence of more than a decade. Those forces include a Patriot missile battery. Prince Sultan became a hub of American air power in the Middle East in the 1990s but was abandoned by Washington after Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
The Saudis clearly were not prepared for this assault, which was unusual in its execution and unprecedented in its targeting. They have largely focused their air defenses on threats from the south, in the direction of Houthi rebels who frequently launch shorter-range missile and drone attacks on Saudi territory. Saudi officials said Wednesday the low-flying cruise missiles and armed drones struck from the north, suggesting they came from Iran .
The strike interrupted the equivalent of about 5% of the world's daily oil supply. Saudi Arabia's energy minister said Tuesday that more than half of the country's daily crude oil production that was knocked out by the attack had been recovered and production capacity at the targeted plants would be fully restored by the end of the month.
Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said "almost no state" could have fully thwarted such an unconventional attack. Saudi Arabia, given the scope of its oil infrastructure, is especially at risk to Iran's multi-dimensional threat.
"The vulnerability of Saudi Arabia's ... critical infrastructure is probably impossible to entirely defend," Jones said, though the Saudis are "fairly well prepared" to defend against conventional threats such as warplanes.
Though the Saudis' energy minister talked of a rapid bounce-back, the attack seemed to herald a new era of energy vulnerability.
"Never in the history of global energy markets has a malevolent act targeted at energy infrastructure been felt globally," Pierre Noel, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Tuesday. He called it the "archetypal event that oil security specialists talk about all the time but never happens."
Iran denies it was to blame. But its alleged fingerprints on the destruction in the desert point to a trend toward a shadowy form of warfare that can sneak past traditional defenses.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote this week that the use of cruise missiles and armed drones - whether by Iran or its Houthi proxies in Yemen - reflects a move toward unconventional military capabilities, including cyberattack, that defies traditional thinking about defense and security.
"Analysts have been warning about these shifts in the nature of war for years, but the recent strikes on Saudi Arabia have made it clear that they are now at least a limited reality," Cordesman wrote.
Saudi officials on Wednesday said the attack was "unquestionably sponsored by Iran," naming but not directly accusing its Gulf rival of launching the assault.
By stopping short of saying the missiles were launched from Iran, the kingdom potentially avoids making a response that could lead to war among the heavyweight countries of the region and the United States. However, not retaliating also carries the risk of leaving Saudi Arabia exposed to further attacks.
For decades, particularly in the wake of Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990, the Saudis have spent tens of billions of dollars on foreign military equipment and training -- most of it from the United States.
Between 2014 and 2018, the Saudis ranked as the world's No. 1 arms importer. In that period, they accounted for 22 percent of the United States' global arms sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In recent years they have acquired some of America's top-shelf weapons, including F-15 fighter aircraft, Apache attack helicopters and the Patriot air defense systems.
None of that made a difference last weekend in the face of an attack that exposed Saudi weaknesses that might seem obvious in retrospect.
Just last month, Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies gave a presentation that pinpointed Saudi vulnerabilities to Iranian attack, although he focused mainly on the threat of Iranian cyberattacks and ballistic missiles.
"Saudi Arabia is so vulnerable that defensive measures, while they are important, will not ever solve the problem," Jones said in his video presentation. The best approach, he said, is deterrence -- making Iran believe it would pay an enormous cost for targeting Saudi oil infrastructure.
John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, Inc., a security firm, told The Associated Press he believes that Iran had collected intelligence using cyber intrusions during acts of sabotage against oil tankers in the Gulf region earlier this year.
"Frogmen, drones, third-party proxies and cyberattack are all capabilities Iran can use to turn up the heat," Hultquist said. "All of them are on the table right now, and companies operating in the Gulf should take notice and prepare."