If you have noticed a decrease in the number of songbirds around your bird feeders recently, it may not be your imagination.
Back in September I read with some alarm the reports about a study in the journal Science that said North America has lost more than one in four birds in the last 50 years – or roughly 3 billion breeding birds.
The team compiled data from academic studies and professional breeding bird surveys conducted by the USGS and Canadian Wildlife Service from 1970 to 2017, along with citizen-science data, and other efforts. The team also looked at the last decade of data collected by the 143 NEXRAD weather radar stations located across the continent, which can track the entire biomass of bird migration each spring and fall.
Most shockingly, the biggest losses came from grassland birds, common songbirds, and even invasive species. Songbirds were particularly hard hit. Dark-eyed juncos (that most familiar of winter feeder birds) are declining, as are eastern and western meadowlarks. Two out of five Baltimore orioles are gone. Even invasive birds like European starlings and house sparrows are declining (not that I would miss those), but I would certainly miss the barn swallows, which are also declining (ours did return to the farm this year).
Reading the news stories about the report caused me to pay a little more attention in my little corner of the world. Bear in mind that my observations are hardly scientific, but it was enough for me to take notice and delve into it a little deeper and share my concerns with you. My observations:
The mockingbird that returns every year and serenades us from the old television aerial antenna was conspicuously absent this year. He would perch there and sing, and he seemed to enjoy when we talked back like trained humans, but not this year.
The Carolina wrens that overwinter in our garage are absent. Granted they were not welcome visitors, but they were persistent and so it just became easier to accept them and move on – at least they were good about being able to get out of the garage without any help. We haven’t seen them this year.
The woods were eerily quiet during deer gun season; I didn’t hear nearly the number of woodpeckers, crows, and white-throated sparrows that I have heard in years past. Perhaps hearing loss is to blame for part of that, but it was enough to make me think.
And in retrospect I don’t think I heard nearly the number of wood thrushes and common yellowthroats as I have in past years.
Most tellingly, I’m not having to refill my feeders as often, and common birds such as house finches and assorted sparrows, towhees, and chickadees are either not there or are much fewer in numbers – Northern Cardinals are very noticeable by their absence. I’ve said before that birds are like flowers that we get to enjoy all winter long, and the Cardinals are the brightest birds in the bouquet; it would be an unspeakable tragedy if that were to ever change.
For the record, not all of my friends are seeing the same decline at their feeders, while other are seeing less of some species and more of the other, or just more birds in general.
Was our particularly wet winter and spring to blame? Is something more sinister at work? Perhaps it is a combination of factors, habitat loss as more grasslands are converted in cropland, or the decline of insect prey due to pesticides, or pesticides themselves, or climate change? Maybe diseases like West Nile Virus?
Domestic cats reportedly kill up to 2.4 billion birds a year, with window strikes adding another 600 million, cars – 214 million, power lines – 34 million, and bright city lights distracting millions of migrating birds. People like to point out wind turbines as bird killers, but for every single bird killed by a turbine, perhaps thousands are killed by Fluffy and her kind.
The sheer abundance of these missing birds hides their decline; it is hard to notice a reduction in bird numbers of birds that you see every day.
If we lose our birds, it’s not just their songs and beauty that we’ll miss. We may miss more what they do for us, things like eating billions of disease-carrying insects, or helping pollinate plants.
There is a model on how to help the birds. Some species, like migratory waterfowl or wild turkey, have increased in numbers as outdoorsmen lobbied over the years to protect wetlands and to purchase and protect wildlife habitat. Hunting licenses, permits, migratory bird stamps, and excise taxes on sporting firearms and ammunition and other sporting goods provides a sizeable funding source for wildlife conservation and protection. Nobody hunts finches and sparrows, but non-game species still benefit directly from the protected wildlife habitat.
In the meantime, you can help songbirds by keeping your cats indoors, reducing window collisions by turning out unnecessary lights at night and putting up window takes, and trying to improve habitat for birds in your corner of the world, use less disposable plastics, or even buy a U.S. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (even if you don’t hunt, it helps wildlife directly and gets you access to national wildlife refuges – plus they look pretty cool).
The birds at our feeders needn’t be the canary in the coal mine.
Jim Freeman is a conservation technician for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org