By: Marcia Wolfe, Valley Ag Voice
I remember being in my basic required Biology class one day in college as an undergraduate years ago. Most of us know how it goes when taking a required course—there were a lot of students present who were just there because they had to be,not because they wanted to be. So,they weren’t interested in the material being presented. In this instance I recall the professor, Dr. Gordon Alcorn a renowned West Coast ornithologist, talking about birds. Some of the students were getting restless and uninterested and the professor realized it. Then he stopped and said, “You aren’t interested in birds? Well if you aren’t, you should be. If suddenly today there were no birds in the world, tomorrow when you wake up everyone in the world would be knee deep in dead insects.” There was a resounding wow in the classroom as the students perked up with interest.
That is what I remembered the other day when I saw an article in the newspaper, and then in a half dozen biological and environmental newsletters that the bird populations in both Canada and the United States have declined 30 percent in the last 50 years! That is a loss of 3 billion birds since 1970! Grassland birds decreased by 53%—which amounts to a loss of 720 million birds. The information is based upon work by Cornell Lab of Ornithology which was published in the most recent issue of Science Magazine.
We all know there are threatened and endangered bird species. Agencies, landowners and environmental groups have been working to help reduce their population declines and prevent their extinction. Recently in fact, the Kirtland’s warbler in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario has been deemed recovered enough to delist it. One success, hooray!
The study throughout Canada and the US expected declines to show for most threatened species, but the extensive losses in common birds was not anticipated. I certainly had not heard of this anywhere until last week.
The success with Kirtland’s warbler is small consolation when facing the incredible and continuing decimation of the 12 main groups of our most common birds, including swallows, warblers, sparrows, finches, as well as other backyard birds.
Do you realize that without any change in that rate of decline, based on statistics from multiple country surveys, birds would be extinct in about 100 years?! That would be disastrous. Actually, the disasters likely would start long before that point. Everything is interconnected—plants, animals, insects, soils, air, and water. Remember, in the wild scheme of things, humans are simply another animal inhabiting the earth, although, we are supposed to be smarter than others. These incredible population losses identify the significant deterioration of our environment. This is the same environment that you and I depend upon as humans. Most of the articles I reviewed did not use fear mongering words. However, this evident problem is extremely serious. To me it seems scary. First off, we apparently didn’t even realize it was happening, at least to this extent, and certainly not to the most common of bird species. Secondly, we have no definite idea of the primary cause(s).
In all likelihood, the causes are multiple, but it is strange that it only seems to have occurred in the past 50 years. Some point to climate change. Granted we have had climate change for millions of years; it does appear to be happening more quickly now because of things humans are doing. Birds have the ability to adapt to some level of change, as they can move north and south or east and west, as long as there is adequate food, nesting and cover. There also has been habitat loss from commercial, industrial,and residential development as well as from agriculture. As more food is going to be needed, it can be anticipated more habitat conversion for agricultural uses may occur. Herbicides and pesticides that result in overall loss of primary food for a bird species could result. Also feral cats are estimated to cause annual losses of 9 million birds a year. Cats are one of few species that often simply kills for fun and not necessarily for something to eat. When I had pet cats, I loved them. But I did feed them, and in turn they kept the mice out of the laundry room in the garage when I lived on a ranch. But it’s time humans become responsible for their actions. Take care of your pets. Keep your cats with bells on or keep them indoors.
Relative to habitat loss, all areas adjacent to agricultural fields and canals do not have to be maintained without vegetation. An experiment with re-vegetation along fields, done by myself,showed that there were fewer squirrels, even with small plots of habitat nearby. Part of that is because ground squirrels like disturbance. They do not like stable plant communities. Even insect populations improved, with green lacewings being found in the middle of a square mile of an adjacent vineyard by an entomologist, when that would never occur without nearby habitat. Green lacewings are a beneficial insect that eat agricultural pest insects including aphids, thrips, mealybugs, psyllids, white flies and others. Free insect control! Birds also live in these types of adjacent habitat areas, even though the areas may be small in size. Burrowing owls, which also eat rodents in addition to insects, may use small areas. They can save us so much money.
About ten years ago we put up some owl nest boxes on poles. After checking them last month, we discovered after all this time, a pair of barn owls were still living in one of the boxes. Owls have a home range of +/- 100 acres upon which they forage or farther depending upon prey density. Interestingly, they are loyal to their nesting location and usually return to the same one year after year. The second box may have been too close. About 15 years ago I discussed installing nest boxes for a class. A couple years later I encountered one of the class attendees where I gave the nest box presentation. He excitedly told me how he had installed nest boxes and how successful it had been for rodent control for his vineyard. I was so excited I asked if he would co-author a paper with me about it. His response was negative. He said why would I want to advertise my competitive advantage since I don’t have to buy rodenticide anymore? I was so disappointed. Working with nature and the environment can save us a lot of money. In addition, it very well may help save the very environment that our own lives depend upon.
We are ignorant. We do not yet know which causes of bird population losses is the most critical. It can only help to keep the environment healthy if we stop doing things we know are harmful, such as using pesticides that end up in our ground water, contaminating our drinking water, and kill our predatory birds from secondary poisoning. If crop losses from birds are an issue, maybe we should create some adjacent bird habitat. Or maybe we should plant a nut orchard just for the birds and let them have it. Keeping plastics picked up so birds and other animals can’t eat them. Plastic can kill, as you may remember from my article in September. A friend’s Australian shepherd died from eating a plastic sandwich baggie someone threw in his yard.
Every day we can do simple things to help save birds. You can contribute to bird conservation programs. When I worked for Department of Energy, we put hawk silhouettes on the large reflective windows that mirrored the sky to help deter bird fatalities. It cut bird collision deaths on the glass by 99%, an incredible improvement at almost no cost. Put shrubs and trees in your yard for nesting and shelter. Manage your rangelands to help protect nesting grassland birds. You may not be aware that a number of birds simply lay their eggs or nest on the ground.
To find the causes to eliminate this huge bird decline will require time and research. But meanwhile stay tuned, and do whatever you can to help birds, as over time the birds you save may help save yourself.