People who love birds have been saying for some time that their numbers seem to be down, and that spring and fall migrations aren’t as lively as they once were.
Turns out that these people were right: There are fewer birds than there were a generation ago, and the drop in many of our common bird species is noticeable. There now are 40% fewer Baltimore orioles and 25% fewer blue jays and juncos, for example.
There’s been a staggering loss of birds across North America. You probably saw the news stories in mid-September, announcing that our continent has lost 3 billion birds — 25% of the total population of birds — in the past 50 years. The scientists who pulled together the study were shocked by the steep losses, across 300 species since 1970.
What would autumn be without the sweet whistles of migratory white-throated sparrows? Or rural areas filled with chattering red-winged blackbirds as they form migratory flocks? A third of the population of both birds has simply disappeared.
This is horrific news, and a jolt to most of us. We knew that things weren’t going well in the natural world, but there have always been birds around us, and it’s been easy to assume that there always will be.
But this is a wake-up call, because this huge loss of adult, breeding birds can’t be sustained. We could face a true “silent spring” unless we take steps.
“The loss of nearly three billion birds signals a looming crisis that we have the power to stop,” says John Fitzpatrick, director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pointing to a need for “bold, landscape-scale conservation campaigns.” These worked to bring back the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and waterfowl like wood ducks.
There are things we individual bird lovers can do, as well, to make a difference. Let’s face it: If we live in a home or apartment with windows, we’re killing birds. If we let our cats roam outside, we’re letting them kill birds. And if we use harmful pesticides on our lawns and gardens, we’re causing birds to die.
The death toll in this country from window strikes and cat attacks may be as high as 2 billion birds a year, so making changes can make a real difference. But we’ve got to realize that we haven’t a moment to lose. It’s time to get serious about preventing avoidable bird deaths. Here are some steps we each can take to turn things around. None of them are new, but what is different now is the sense of urgency. We really need to start doing these things now if we want to continue to see birds in the world.
Simple steps can help
1. Safer windows: Birds perceive window reflections as habitat they can fly through, an often-fatal mistake. You don’t need to treat all the windows in your home, just the ones near feeders or along a route birds often use. Put decals on the outside of the window to break up the reflection, or use rows of string or screening over the window. Learn more at allaboutbirds.org (search for “why birds hit windows”).
2. Cats indoors: Cats aren’t native to North America and birds don’t have good defenses against them. If you do nothing else, please turn your outdoor cat into an indoor cat to save bird lives. Outdoor enclosures and “catios” are a good way to allow cats outdoors safely, and walking your cat on a leash is another solution (yes, really). Find out more at allaboutbirds.org (search for “outdoor cats”).
3. Avoid harmful pesticides: Just because a pesticide is on store shelves or is used by lawn companies doesn’t mean it’s safe for wildlife (or humans). Many such products are lethal to birds and to the insects that birds need to eat. Let’s stop using harmful chemicals that can harm birds and other wildlife. Learn more at: smithsonianmag.com (search for “bird population”).
4. Plant natives: Loss of habitat is a major factor in bird population declines, but we can help by making our home landscapes more nature-friendly. Plant native-to-our-region trees, shrubs and plants that offer food and shelter to migratory and resident birds. Learn more at dnr.state.mn.us (search for “landscaping with native plants”).
5. Shady coffee: Many of our summer birds (warblers, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks) spend the winter in the tropics, and we can help make a difference here, as well. Coffee grown in Central and South America under a natural forest canopy offers good habitat for birds. But many growers grow coffee in full sunlight, leaving no place for birds. Make sure your coffee is either certified as Bird Friendly or produced by the Rainforest Alliance. More here: allaboutbirds.org (search for “coffee good for birds”).
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.