For the Birds: DIY steps to help save birds

Here’s the latest For the Birds column.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Tufted titmice gather near a container with coneflower during November 2018. Coneflower is a native plant that attracts birds.

The study released a few weeks ago that reported a 29 percent decline in the number of birds in North America since 1970 did not merely throw out some discouraging facts and leave it at that.

It also included many reasons why bird populations are decreasing, most notably habitat loss. There is not a whole lot the average person can do about habitat loss — other than plead with local officials to stop the development of critical habitat. But the authors of the study did include seven actions that we can all do to help improve birds’ chances of survival.

The actions are as follows: use native plants, avoid pesticides, keep cats indoors, make windows safer, do citizen science, reduce the use of plastic and drink shade-grown coffee. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these actions.

Planting native flowers, bushes and trees gives birds and insects a source of food they have evolved with. It restores the natural balance of an area and limits the spread of invasive plant species. A simple internet search will yield dozens upon dozens of bird-friendly native choices for your garden and yard.

Pesticides should be avoided for much the same reason. Killing off insects, especially native insects, limits the food available for birds. Many birds rely on insects as the main part of their diet. This is particularly important during the nesting season as birds feed their youngsters and teach their fledglings how to hunt. If an area is void of insects, it is likely void of birds.

I know how difficult it can be to keep cats indoors. Most cats want to be outdoors and it’s hard to deny them that desire. My cat sneaks out on occasion when I have my hands full of groceries and the screen door closes too slowly, so I have work to do in this area as well. But it really is in the birds’ best interest to keep kitty inside. Feral cats? That’s another bigger problem.

If you have some particularly problematic windows that bird keep crashing into, consider buying decals to put on the outside of those windows. The decals are relatively unobtrusive and may be found at bird stores or online. The decals break up the scene that may otherwise be confused as an extension of the outdoors. Building windows? That’s a way bigger problem that many developers are starting to address with bird-friendly design.

Participating in citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count and Project Feeder Watch gives important data to ornithologists that they use to track bird population trends. In fact, this data was a key source of information for the latest study.

There are several easy steps to take to reduce the amount of plastic used. Reusable water bottles, although many are made of plastic, greatly reduce waste. Filling a water bottle each morning instead of drinking two or three store-bought waters has a great impact over the course of time. 

Similarly, reusable shopping bags reduce the need for the one-time use plastic bags. That also keeps those annoying bags out of trees, which I often mistake for birds from a distance.

Industrial-scale coffee plantations are an environmental nightmare as large swaths of land are clear cut on many birds’ winter grounds. Thankfully there are many bird-friendly, shade-grown options. Birds and Beans brand is based in New England.

Employing some of these strategies will help the birds that live in and around your property. It may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.9 billion birds that have disappeared in the last 50 years, but enough drops will eventually overfill a bucket.

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For the Birds: Decline is worrisome, no matter what

Photo by Chris Bosak A European Starling in winter plumage perches on an old sunflower stalk, Dec. 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A European Starling in winter plumage perches on an old sunflower stalk, Dec. 2014.

The study released two weeks ago by the journal Science is worth another look.

As you recall from last week’s column, a collaboration of top bird and conservation organizations performed perhaps the most exhaustive study of the North American bird population and released the results two weeks ago.

The study, which reported a decline in the bird population of 29 percent or nearly three billion birds over the last 50 years, garnered significant attention in the media and science arena. The attention is well deserved as the results are quite shocking and put a number on the decline of birds, which we all knew was happening to some degree.

Most of the immediate media attention focused on the precipitous drop in bird populations and echoed the report’s call for significant action to be taken before it’s too late. That call to action is certainly appropriate and the report most definitely is a wake-up call to everybody on the planet. Some analysts, however, upon taking a deeper dive into the report’s number, see it as not the doomsday scenario that many are painting it to be. They acknowledge, for sure, that it is a big problem and steps should be taken to reverse the trend, but they say mass extinction is not imminent.

According to an article published by undark.org, a nonprofit organization that explores the “intersection of science and society,” the numbers inside the numbers show where much of the decline comes from. Citing a blog post by University of Maine macro-ecologist Brian McGill, the article states that a significant portion of the decline comes from invasive species. House sparrows and European starlings account for 15 percent of the net loss of birds.

On the other hand, if highly adaptable birds such as house sparrows and starlings are declining so much, then something is wrong.

Other sources in the undark.org story point out that most of the top 40 declining species are very abundant and an extinction is not around the corner. Taking the top 40 declining species out of the picture, more bird species are increasing rather than decreasing.

To me, the loss of three billion birds is significant regardless of the particulars. Look at it this way, if we’ve lost 29 percent of our birds, then instead of seeing 100 birds a day, we’d see 71 birds. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but paints a picture of how dramatic the decline is.

The research team, including the American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Institute, U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service, launched the website 3billionbirds.org after releasing the study. The site includes text, graphics and videos to augment the media coverage the report has already received. It also includes steps you can take at home to help save birds.

I’ll take a look at those steps in next week’s column. In the meantime (warning: spoiler alert), keep kitty inside and don’t spray your plants.

Bird population decline fodder II

BirdDeclines-migratory-28.jpg

Here are some more graphics from the recently released bird population study that showed a decline of 2.9 billion birds, or 29 percent, in North American over the last 50 years.

Here’s my recent article on it.

The study’s accompanying website is 3billionbirds.org

#BringBirdsBack

BirdDeclines-grassland-720.jpg

Bird population decline fodder

1-in-4-square-UPDATED9-20.jpg

Here are some graphics from the recently released bird population study that showed a decline of 2.9 billion birds, or 29 percent, in North American over the last 50 years.

Here’s my recent article on it.

The study’s accompanying website is 3billionbirds.org

#BringBirdsBack

 Note: This graph has been updated to reflect the technical image from the  Science  paper.