So, what good are birds?
Well, watching their antics and listening to their calls are important parts of the lure of our gardens and of the greater outdoors. But apart from the aesthetic aspect, there is a very practical one for gardeners—they eat a tremendous number of insects that attack our plants and quite a lot of the weed seeds that cause us hours of back-breaking labor (they also contribute some fertilizer although this is not always appreciated!). Some also pollinate plants--in Claremont, this is just the hummingbirds, but in other parts of the world there are many plants that depend on different species of birds for this. And the fact that a lot of animals eat birds or their eggs makes them an important part of ecosystems all over the world.
Is there a problem?
Yes, indeedy. A recent Sustainable Claremont dialog painted quite a concerning picture (you can get the link to the YouTube video on the SC website: sustainableclaremont.org). There are almost three billion (yes, billion) fewer birds now in the annual count than there were in 1970 in North America. Not good news for any of us.
As for most things, the reasons for this are many and complicated.
- Habitat loss: The conversion of land to agriculture and housing has seriously reduced food and nesting sites for many birds. Habitat loss is the major problem.
- Herbicides and pesticides have also reduced the number of insects and seeds available; these can kill birds directly too or make them sick and damage their eggs. Poisoned birds and rodents can kill raptors and scavengers who eat them. With fewer owls and hawks, rodent populations can flourish.
- Climate change has resulted in some plants flowering earlier and insects emerging earlier so that the food available for migratory birds has decreased. Some species just aren’t going to be able to adjust to the changes quickly enough or at all.
- Hard surfaces: Quite a few birds die from hitting windows (about one billion deaths), buildings, power lines, cell towers, and a small but increasing number now from wind turbines.
- Plastic pollution is also an increasingly serious threat, especially to shore birds as all those tiny pieces in the ocean can make birds sick or kill them.
- Invasive species are a real problem. Mosquitos can carry bird flu—this devastated Claremont’s crow population a decade or so ago, allowing a population explosion of those pesky fox squirrels. It is estimated that cats account for the loss of over 2 billion (yes, billion) birds a year.
Depressing, I know, but there is hope. So what can we do?
- Habitat loss: We can support preserving all the natural areas we can, even ones that have recovered from various forms of development. We can create gardens with a variety of plants for food and nesting sites--trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, local natives, making sure that all months have something in bloom, and let many plants set seed. We can include a pond or birdbath in our gardens.
- Poisons: We can go pesticide- and herbicide-free and enjoy the holes and scalloped edges on leaves as evidence of a healthy ecosystem (look for their creators—insects are pretty fascinating!). A healthy bird population (and all the insects you don’t kill that prey on the leaf-chompers) will help to keep them under control.
- Climate change: Well, volumes have been written about how to combat this. We can keep current on what measures to take in our daily lives; each of us is a small but important part of the battle, and our cumulative effect can be considerable. We can also keep track of proposed legislation and support good ones.
- Hard surfaces: We can site bird feeders within 3 ft of a window (birds can’t get up much speed in that distance) or over 30 ft away. We can put reflective strips or stickers, or paint designs on windows to alert birds that there really isn’t a continuation of the garden. Mosquito screens or tall plants in front of the window can have the same effect.
- Plastic pollution: We can do our best to reduce the amount of plastic we use. Again a lot has been written about this. It’s hard, but we can keep trying. We can find out what the City is doing to help with this and support their efforts too.
- Invasive species: Alas, the worst (but cutest; I am a cat person) of the naturalized non-native species we have in terms of threat to birds is the house cat. Feral cats are a continuing problem with no perfect solution yet. Even neutered ones that are returned to the community still hunt. However, there is much we can do for our pet cats. The best idea is to keep cats and birds separate by keeping the moggies indoors. It’s safer for the birds and lizards (most of the animals cats catch never make it to your doorstep) and for our pets too. If you worry that your cat will be bored, making a place for it to sit and look out of a window can provide quite a bit of entertainment. If you think your pet would be happier surrounded by more of the outdoors, then a “catio” may be the answer (yes, that is a rather twee name, but that’s what they are called). The SC dialog mentioned above has some photos of various sorts, ranging from an enclosed window box to an entire enclosed patio area, quite a bit like an aviary but where the birds get to stay outside.
There are solutions. Let’s all do what we can to mitigate the loss of our feathered friends so it isn’t “Bye, bye birdie”!