I am writing in response to Pam Owen’s recent article where she raises the question “Where Are All the Birds.”
Pam raises a good question to which there are, sadly, no easy answers. The National Audubon Society notes that 25 percent of bird species are currently in decline with some species having lost 50-70 percent of their populations since 1970.
North America is currently home to one billion fewer birds than it was 40 years ago. Some common species that are in sharp decline include the following: Cape May warbler, chimney swift, common grackle, common nighthawk, eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, horned lark, loggerhead shrike, northern bobwhite, pine siskin, rusty blackbird, snow bunting, snowy owl and yellow-billed cuckoo. Grassland and insect eating species seem to be the ones most impacted.
Why is this happening?
Habitat loss is the primary reason for declining bird populations followed closely by habitat alteration.Climate change is becoming an ever bigger player as we see more and more extremes in climate. Birds depend on a stable climate to raise their young, not the freaky weather patterns we have seen over the past few years. This past year I recorded 101 inches of rain at my home, double our annual average and a number that would cause one to think of the tropics or Pacific Northwest.
Thirty-six inches of that rain came in May, June and July; the time our year-round residential birds and neotropical passerines are building nests, laying eggs, and trying to raise their young. This cool, wet weather at the wrong time may have had an impact on local bird populations, especially if it had an impact on the availability of insects and caterpillars that nesting birds feed their young. Even seed eaters feed their hatchlings insects and caterpillars because of their high protein content.
Doug Tallamy, author and head of the Entomology Department at the University of Delaware, conducted a study that focused on a pair of nesting Carolina chickadees. He found that the adults will catch 390-575 caterpillars per day to feed a clutch of 4-6 hatchlings. It takes 16 days for the hatchlings to fledge and in that time period they will consume over 9,000 caterpillars. All of this happens within 50 meters of the nest and this is just one pair of chickadees.
Increasing pesticide use is causing pesticides to build up in the environment. As a result, insect numbers are dropping around the world reducing the availability of food for birds and their young. The modern agricultural landscape has been described as a hostile environment for insects and birds. To complicate matters even more, home owners use an astounding 10 times more pesticides on their lawns and gardens than does our entire agricultural industry.As if this was not enough, a new class of systemic insecticides, called neonicotinoids, has been introduced into the pesticide market. Neonicotinoids are chemically related to nicotine. Their toxins are absorbed and transmitted throughout an entire plant by its vascular system making the whole plant including pollen, nectar and seeds poisonous.
With all of this in mind, what can we all do to help our birds?
First, develop a bird friendly environment at your home or property and use native plants to do so. Second, minimize or eliminate the use of all pesticides. Do not use neonicotinoid pesticides. Be certain to read any pesticide label, for product content and safety rules, before buying or using it. Third, become a bird watcher and contribute data to a variety of sources such as e-bird or the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Fourth, attend educational programs about birds and creating wildlife habitat, and fifth, encourage your friends and neighbors to follow your lead.
The writer, a resident of Sperryville, is a Certified Virginia Master Naturalist