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Saving the Birds--You Can Help!


Populations of rare and common birds alike are decreasing across North America, including (clockwise from top left) snowy owls, sanderlings, cactus wrens and Western meadowlarks. Source: Science News

Thunk! A bird hit my window. Poor little sparrow; she just wanted to fly into the foliage that she saw reflected in my window. I ran outside to check on the bird and was glad she was okay, but that was the day I became acutely aware of two things - my love for birds, and the threats we have imposed on them. To me, birds represent freedom, happiness, and a diversity of colors. With their chirps, songs, and antics, birds are truly my entry point into nature. I look forward to watching and counting birds at the annual tradition of The Great Backyard Bird Count every year. So it was heartbreaking when I read a study published back in September of 2019 in Science Magazine that the North American bird population is down by 30% as we have lost around 3 billion birds in the past 50 years. Unfortunately, some of the common birds such as sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches may not remain common for much longer as they have suffered more than 90% of the losses (more than 2.5 billion birds) reported since 1970. American sparrows, little brown birds commonly seen flitting through our backyards, saw the largest drop of any group of birds as nearly 750 million of them have disappeared over the past five decades. Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53%, or another 720 million birds, while forests have lost 1 billion birds.

Why is this significant?

Birds are crucial for a balanced and healthy ecosystem. They not only keep crop pests and other insects in check, but they also play critical roles in distributing seeds, disposing of rotting carcasses and pollinating plants. For instance, jays not only harvest acorns but replant them as well, successfully maintaining our oak forests. Also, hummingbirds are important pollinators across North America. Hence, such staggering losses in the number of common birds will radically shift the balance of our ecosystem.

What are the main causes?

As the native backyard plants and trees have gradually been replaced by curated lawns, and forests have made way to urban development, birds have lost their natural habitat. Also, climate change and warmer temperatures are driving migratory birds farther north than in the past. Many popular birds once mainly found in the south, including northern cardinals and tufted titmice, are expanding their range into New England. Further, climate change has also impacted the timing of natural events for birds. As temperature serves as a key trigger for important life events such as migration and reproduction, shifts in temperatures are changing the natural timing of these events impacting their life cycle. Additionally, widespread use of pesticides has harmed both the insect population, as well as the birds. A recent study found that when birds eat seeds treated with certain neonicotinoid pesticides, they immediately lose weight, which in turn hinders their ability to migrate. Other causes include collisions with glass windows, which may kill some 600 million birds each year, and house cats, which are estimated to hunt down between one and four billion birds each year.

Five simple ways to help!

  1. Reduce Lawn, Plant Native Plants: Native plants add beauty to our backyard, and provides shelter and nesting areas for birds. The nectar, seeds, berries, and insects will sustain birds and diverse wildlife. Adding bird feeders is even better!

  2. Keep Cats Indoors: House cats are one of the biggest threats for birds as cats kill somewhere around 2 billion birds every year in North America. Save the birds while maintaining cats’ health by keeping cats indoors.

  3. Use Cloth Grocery Bags and Reusable Bottles: Birds mistakenly eat plastic trash and become ill or even die. Avoiding the use of plastic bags and bottles not only saves birds but also reduces plastic pollution and conserves resources.

  4. Avoid Pesticides: One of the most widely used insecticides in the U.S, neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are lethal to birds and to the insects that birds consume. Common weed killers used around homes, such as 4-D and glyphosate (used in Roundup) are toxic to wildlife. So please reduce pesticides around your home and garden.

  5. Turn off the lights at night: Up to one billion birds die each year due to window collisions as many migratory birds are attracted by lights. Turning off the lights or closing the blinds of your offices, homes and buildings will not only help save energy bills but also help our feathered friends.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC