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Songbirds In A Nosedive

author: Tom Cruickshank

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You can still hear your favourite feathered friends warbling and chortling at the feeder, but savvy birdwatchers are well aware that some of their best-loved backyard visitors are in a serious decline. Here’s why.

AN ALARM HAS SOUNDED – rather loudly – about a dramatic drop in songbird populations in North America. The decline has been so precipitous that some observers call it a free fall and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative warns that a number of once-common backyard birds are headed for the endangered list.

As someone who has watched wildlife throughout his adult life, this worries me, especially here on our Hamilton Township farm, where my wife and I keep a “life list” of birds we have observed. In winter, our feeders are full of seed and suet. Our back 40 is ringed with bluebird boxes. We even dug a pond whose main purpose is to attract ducks and other fowl. I figure we’re doing our part for wildlife conservation and would never have imagined that we could be part of the problem. But consider my stories:

Sitting at the breakfast table one spring morning, I heard a thump outside. I thought nothing of it until I looked an hour later and saw a dead bird directly below the windowsill. It was a species I had never seen before: an eastern towhee, a robin sized member of the sparrow family that I recognized only from the birding guides. How unfortunate that my first and only sighting would have broken its neck at my window.

Oddly enough, it wouldn’t be the only deceased specimen added to my life list that year. Later that summer, I was strolling through my garden, checking the progress on the delphiniums, when I spotted a second dead bird on the ground. It was an American woodcock, another species I knew only from the guidebooks. I scratched my head, wondering how it wound up on my lawn, only to see a likely culprit skulking away toward the house: our cat.

One of the nicest surprises upon moving to our farm was the regular springtime sighting of the bobolinks, a grassland bird that likes to set up shop in tall meadows. With a pair of binoculars, we even pinpointed their nests in our hayfield. Funny how they seemed to disappear in early summer. Then we put two and two together and realized that their nests were destroyed when we took off our hay in mid-June, weeks before the fledglings had a chance to fend for themselves.

My experiences give me pause. Even here, on a bucolic farm that we like to think of as a sanctuary, the odds are stacked against the birds. And when I think about it, it makes the bigger picture that much gloomier.

While I may only have lost one sole towhee to a collision with our window, Environment Canada reported in 2013 that, across the country, over 25 million birds meet a similar fate each year. They don’t perceive glass as a barrier, goes the explanation. Birds are particularly susceptible during fall and spring migrations, when they fly at night and easily become disoriented when confronted with artificial light from buildings. This, of course, is a bigger problem in cities: in Toronto, an advocacy group called FLAP Canada – the Fatal Light Awareness Program – counted as many as 500 to 1,000 casualties a year at one glass-clad office complex in a Toronto suburb. Markers on the windows have since cut the collisions by 70% and the group takes comfort knowing that legislation was recently passed in Ontario that obligates developers to make their glass buildings more bird-friendly.

And likewise, it’s hard to condemn my cat for indulging his hunting instincts, until you realize that his brethren, especially feral cats that run wild, have become an unwanted player in the food chain. Indeed, that same Environment Canada report revealed that upwards of 200 million birds fall prey to cats every year. No wonder birdwatchers put cats in the same league as invasive species like zebra mussels and lamprey eels, and urge owners to keep their cats indoors at all times.

Terry Sprague, who has been watching birds and writing about them from his home on Big Island in Prince Edward County for upwards of 50 years, nodded in agreement as I related my towhee and woodcock stories and even added his two cents to my dilemma over the bobolinks. “That’s interesting,” he noted, adding, “When I was a kid on our farm, we used to cut the hay later in July. Nowadays, farmers want two crops of hay per summer, so they cut the first in June. Too bad it’s the meadow birds who pay the price.”

Cats. Collisions with windows. Broods lost to the annual hay harvest. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Terry. Like all avid birders, he too has noticed a marked decline in the numbers of certain species. “When I was a boy, the sky would be thick with tree swallows early every morning as they rose from the marsh to roost in the trees,” he recalls. “Not so much any more.” At first he thought it was just a hunch, but any number of ornithological studies can provide statistical backup. For one, there is The State of North America’s Birds 2016, which received widespread media attention when it was released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative late last year. A collaborative project among scientists from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, the Initiative concurred with reports from the National Geographic Society, the Audubon Society and Environment Canada. “They all have a similar theme,” Terry says, “While some bird populations are steady, as many as one-third of all North American bird species are in decline.“

This is particularly true of migrating birds. Terry was right about the tree swallow: its numbers have dropped 42% since the 1960s. Likewise, the wood thrush, revered by birders for its flute-like song, has declined by 62%; the snow bunting has declined 64%; evening grosbeaks are down an alarming 78%. Worst of all is the northern bobwhite, a grassland quail, whose continent-wide numbers are down from 31 million in 1967 to a mere 5.5 million today. That’s an 82% drop.

To my dismay, birders are also worried about the bobolink (down 64%), although I’m relieved to read that woodcocks and towhees, never all that plentiful to begin with, seem reasonably stable at this time. And while many of these are birds you’ve probably never heard of, the news isn’t good for some quite common, even ordinary species. Perhaps surprisingly, grackle and grouse numbers are down by more than half, and even though it’s still not unusual to spot a Baltimore oriole, it has declined by 46%. Purple martins, a favourite colony-nester for whom hobby carpenters love to build elaborate birdhouses, are down 67%. Since the 1980s, martins have declined about 3% per year.

In all, it is estimated that the total bird population, excluding oceanic species, in North America has dropped from 11.5 billion in 1970 to about 10 billion today. “There’s no understating this issue,” Terry says, thinking of the benefits of biodiversity and healthy natural eco-systems. Currently 86 of North America’s 450 breeding species are considered “vulnerable” and their numbers could be cut in half in the coming decades. “At this rate, it’s just a matter of time…” he adds, his voice trailing off.

While today’s figures are certainly cause to sit up and take notice, I’ve been around long enough to know that the songbird decline has been on the environmental radar for quite some time now. Back in 1989, Harrowsmith magazine was one of the first to raise the issue, pointing its finger directly at the depletion of the Amazon rainforest. As you might recall, the wholesale burning and clearing of pristine tropical forests in Brazil and other parts of Latin America was the hot environmental controversy of the day, and it seemed the logical culprit. After all, the Amazon basin is the winter destination for scores of songbird species – imagine, some of them fly 7,000 kilometres from their summer nesting grounds here in Canada in as little as two or three weeks – and with their winter habitat in decline, perhaps it was a no-brainer that their numbers would be threatened, too.

But the answer wasn’t quite that simple. While the damage to the winter grounds in the tropics is regrettable, habitat loss is hardly exclusive to the Amazon. In fact, the Audubon Society in the U.S. says there is no doubt that “the primary cause of species decline is the loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat,” and sets its sights closer to home, noting that North America has lost 99% of its tallgrass prairie to agriculture. Likewise, more than half of the continent’s wetlands have been drained and, long ago, European settlement doomed the eastern North American forest as colonization spread further and further west until only 5% of it survives today. As time goes on, habitat is still being claimed at an alarming rate, especially as suburbs sprawl unabated into the countryside. And even the boreal forest – that vast swath of trees across northern Canada that is considered the last great intact forest in the world – is under siege these days, as it continues to be invaded by ever-expanding oil and gas wells, coal mines, pipelines and power corridors. Ecosystems of all descriptions are under some kind of threat. No wonder the birds are in retreat.

THE GOOD NEWS | Here in Watershed country, the situation is less dire. We are relatively free of urban pressures, especially compared to neighbouring Durham, which is quickly shedding its rural roots as the GTA bulldozes its way east. Yes, our towns are pushing outward, but our neck of the woods actually provides a reasonably stable environment for songbirds. We even boast two of the best birding vantage points in all of Ontario, namely Presqu’ile near Brighton and Prince Edward Point at the southern tip of Prince Edward County, both of which jut into Lake Ontario and provide respite to tired birds during migration. You’ll see dozens of different species there, guaranteed.

Moreover, several local initiatives have had a positive impact on bird populations: numerous wetland reclamation projects by Ducks Unlimited and other private and public groups; the establishment of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act in 2001; the ongoing restoration of the prairie savannah on the Alderville First Nation. Each has done its part, but most significant of all was something in which bird populations did not factor at all.

The creation of the Ganaraska and Northumberland forests in the 1940s was all about erosion control on what was considered agricultural wasteland, but inadvertently, these vast reclamation projects also evolved into a haven for wildlife. Covering a combined 116,000 acres, they are the largest blocks of woodland in southern Ontario. Although initially criticized for their plantation-style approach to reforestation, the older sections are now being harvested and replaced by native species in an even more natural setting, all the better for sustaining bird populations.

Despite these local successes, avid birders like Terry Sprague are ever vigilant. “One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is that our hedgerows are fast disappearing,” he observes, referring to a relatively new practice among farmers eager to squeeze every square foot out of their acreages by uprooting the trees that divide their fields. “It’s too bad because, as we all know, those trees provided habitat that was especially valuable because so much of the forest cover is gone."

You can’t blame Terry if you hear some frustration in his voice because sometimes the fate of our songbirds must seem like a losing battle. “If the culprit were just one thing, maybe this would be easier to deal with,” he laments. But from urban sprawl to rural degradation, from burning down the Amazon to paving over paradise, from marauding cats to reflecting glass…this is a battle with several fronts.

And the list of “fronts” isn’t yet complete. Add to all this the effects of climate change. Nature Canada predicts that as the Earth warms over the next few decades, bird behaviour will be thrown for a loop. Already, brooding pairs are laying their eggs earlier in the year. Birds are delaying migration in autumn and returning home earlier in spring. Southern birds are moving north, but may face predators, parasites and competitors with which they are not familiar. It’s anyone’s guess as to how well the bird population can adapt, if at all.

None of this sounds particularly hopeful. But as I look out my window toward our feeder, I see the last of the juncos, foraging as they always do through seeds that have spilled onto the ground. Any day now, they’ll be heading north to their summer homes in the boreal forest and soon after, the goldfinches will don their breeding colours and the wrens will return, chatting up a storm as they check out our birdhouses for another year. It’s hard to imagine that anything could interrupt this annual cycle, but knowing that the threat is real, I’m more determined than ever to do my part.

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