Vanishing Birds

Photos: Top, populations of the rufous hummingbird have declined 58% since 1967, according to a new study just released by the Audubon Society. Left, populations of evening grosbeaks have declined 78%. Both photos courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via the Wikipedia.

THE AUDUBON SOCIETY HAS JUST RELEASED an analysis of 40 years of reports on bird populations with the unhappy conclusion that many bird species are in decline: "Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades."

A surprising number of these species would be familiar to most gardeners. Among the popular "backyard birds" that made the list was one of my own favorites, the evening grosbeak. Populations of this large black and yellow bird, which has a distinctive bright yellow slash above its eye, are down an astonishing 78% since 1967. (The decline in this species is second only to the decline in populations of the northern bobwhite, down 82%.) If you live almost anywhere in the United States or southern Canada, you've probably hosted flocks of these birds at your feeders.

Another surprise is the decline in populations of the common grackle, a member of the Corvid (crow) family, that is often seen in urban areas and parks. Because it seems to get along well with humans, I wouldn't have expected this bird to be in decline--but it is, down 61%.

Populations of rufous hummingbirds, which are the hummingbirds most likely to be seen at feeders on the West Coast, are down 58%.

If you live in a rural area or area where there is still natural habitat left, you are likely to spot a lot more good friends on this list: The boreal chickadee (down 73%), eastern meadowlark (72%), field sparrow (68%), and ruffed grouse (54%) are just a few examples from the "top 20" list.

All of these declines can be attributed, one way or another, to loss of habitat. Farmland and meadow birds are suffering because of suburban sprawl, industrial development, and the replacement of old-fashioned farming methods with intensive agriculture. Other birds are in trouble because of climate change, deforestation, and loss of wetlands.

None of these species is on the verge of extinction, at least not yet. But such huge declines are very worrisome. What can we, as wildlife-friendly gardeners, do? Here are Audubon's recommendations, with my comments:
  • Protect local habitat. This would include gardening and landscaping in a wildlife-friendly way, as well protecting natural areas where they still exist in your neighborhood. You can also support organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, that protect critical habitat areas.

  • Support sustainable forests. One good way to do this is to buy wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is the toughest of the certification programs. The Audubon Society notes that this would be especially helpful to our friends the evening grosbeaks, as they are dependent on boreal forests as breeding grounds.

  • Promote sound agricultural policy. Agriculture has a tremendous impact on wildlife, and our shopping and eating choices have a tremendous impact on agriculture. Once you've made your own property wildlife friendly, it seems to me that the natural "next step" is to support farmers who manage their land in a wildlife-friendly way. You can do this by shopping for organic, locally grown, seasonal foods and getting to know your local food producers. Let them know that you care about wildlife-friendly farming practices.

  • Protect wetlands. If you have wet areas on your own land, large or small, value them, plant them with native plants, and protect them. They are essential not only for many birds but also for other animals, particularly amphibians.

  • Fight global warming. There are lots of ways to do this, but as gardeners we can avoid using tools that are powered by gasoline or electricity, plant trees, landscape in such a way that we reduce heating and cooling costs in the home, improve soil quality, grow our own vegetables ... and probably quite a few other things as well.

  • Combat invasive species. This recommendation is particularly relevant to gardeners, as sadly we have been responsible for the introduction of far too many species that have caused degradation of wildlife habitat. The easiest way to avoid planting invasive species and help wildlife at the same time is to garden with native plants.
Each of these recommendations would be helpful not just to birds but to all native wildlife, to say nothing of human health and quality of life! They deserve more discussion than I can give them in a single post. Where they're relevant to gardening and landscaping, I'll be coming back to them in future installments.

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