Thursday, July 23, 2015

Whither the Birds?

Delicious little wild strawberries grow in a sandy patch of soil in the woods where I walk. The birds usually snatch them before I get a chance, but this year they are all mine.

Across the lake a friend notes that the red currents on her bushes have ripened but have yet to attract any birds.

The woods seem quieter this year.  The gulls, whose numbers grow each year, continue to complain as they circle the lake. But within the trees there is less flickering of wings and only occasional bird song.

Where are all the birds?

We once were visited by squadrons of birds, either locals or transients just passing through. Almost daily we were amused by the antics of the nuthatches as they walked the trunks of trees upside down. Grosbeaks and finches added colour to our dull days.

There was always noise in the trees around us. Scolding from the blue jays. The dee, dee, dee calls of the chickadees. The morning and evening moaning of the doves. And, of course, the non-stop warbling of the vireo that decided that the best place to sing at dawn was outside my bedroom window.

We don’t feed the birds like we used to and perhaps that’s why I don’t see or hear as many. Rampaging bears smashed most of our birdfeeders a couple of years back and I haven’t got around to replacing them.

However, there is little doubt that bird populations everywhere have declined and continue to decline. Birds are among the most studied critters on earth and any of the many reports about them do not make for happy reading. Losses over the last 40 years are in the billions.

Our birds are dying off for many reasons. Habitat loss is the main one. When we cut down a patch of woods to put up a shopping mall, we eliminate the homes of thousands of birds. When we slash and burn tropical forests for plantations we eliminate the habitat of many of the migratory birds that spend summers with us.

New reports show that the increasing number of wind turbines are killing hundreds of thousands of birds. There are many other obstructions, however. Millions of birds in North America die each year after crashing into communications towers, the plate glass on high-rise buildings, power lines and guy wires.

Now there are studies claiming that cats kill billions of birds. The U.S. 2014 State of the Birds report claims that domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States and 196 million in Canada.

Yes, cats do indeed kill birds but by the billions?

It’s difficult to put much faith in many of the statistics now tossed around about bird losses. We have to suspect everything we read because we live in a marketing society drifting into the Donald Trump School of Communication.

But exact numbers do not really matter. Throughout the world our birds are disappearing. Martha, the world’s last known passenger pigeon, died 101 years ago. She was one of 100 species of birds that have become extinct in the last 400 years.

The watch list of birds nearing extinction continues to grow. About 1,200 bird species, roughly 12 per cent of all bird species, are endangered, threatened or vulnerable, says the environmental group Endangered Species International.

When birds disappear so do other things. Some birds are important pollinators. Some are seed dispersers important to plant reproduction. Woodpeckers, for instance, pound at trees and create cavities that are important to insects and other living things.

When birds disappear so do some flowers and plants and insects.  It’s a chain that when broken changes our world, sometimes in tiny ways, sometimes in large, critical ways.

But for all the studies and reports on what is making the birds disappear, one thing is definite. Almost everything that is killing the birds is created by human beings.

When we walk into the woods and notice fewer flickering wings and less birdsong, we have to ask ourselves if there are ways that we can be living differently.

(From my Minden Times column July 23, 2015)

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