Silence of the birds
By Jim Poling
Published Nov. 16, 2017
I am in my deer hunting stand, watching and wondering. Wondering where they all have gone.
Not the deer. I am beyond the days of anxiety over seeing a taggable deer. I am just content being here, soaking up the forest sounds and sights.
My wondering is about the birds. Each November that I sit in this stand there seem to be fewer birds.
Today there are no noisy jays flashing by, squawking and shrieking their concern about my presence. No chickadees flitting nervously, trying to decide whether to get closer to see if I have anything to eat. Not even a patrolling crow or raven croaking a warning about my presence as it passes overhead en route to doing whatever crows and ravens do early in the morning.
I am certain that the numbers of birds in the forest I hunt are declining every year. I have zero scientific evidence to support that, just my own observations and my gut feelings.
Years ago I used to see flocks of grosbeaks and finches at my lake home. The blue jays always were around in numbers, especially if you tossed out a handful for peanuts. There also were some more exotic breeds, like the cardinals, and the warbling vireo whose constant song drove me crazy at dawn and dusk.
Partridge (ruffed grouse) used to be especially abundant. Now there are so few that I won’t hunt them, despite the fact that they are one of my favourite foods.
Certainly there are many studies that support my gut feeling about declining bird populations in general.
A Partners in Flight study from last year says that there are one billion fewer continental birds today than there were 40 years ago. That study was done by a coalition of activists, academics and government agencies in Canada and the United States.
The State of North America’s Birds 2016 reports that 37 per cent of all North American bird species require urgent action to save them from extinction. There is moderate concern for the future of another 49 per cent.
The Red List published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) includes 1,227 world bird species threatened by extinction – 192 of them critically endangered.
Older Canadian studies say that Canadian breeding bird populations declined 12 per cent between 1970 and 2010. The biggest declines were among birds that migrate, and those travelling the greatest distance showing the biggest declines.
Forty-four per cent of all Canadian bird species have declined while 33 per cent have increased and 23 per cent have stayed constant. Arctic shore birds have been particularly hard hit as have aerial insectivores such as swallows and other birds that catch insects in flight. Their numbers are declining faster than any other group of birds but no one seems to know the reason.
A main reason that there are fewer birds in many countries is habitat loss. Much forest and grassland habitat throughout the world is going to agriculture. Logging continues to reduce bird homelands.
Pollution from toxic spills, pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals remains a major factor against bird life despite our efforts to be more environmentally conscious. Many toxic pesticides and harmful chemicals banned or controlled in North America still are freely used in other parts of the world.
Human activity is a major factor in bird kills. Collisions with buildings, power lines and vehicles kill an estimated 900 million birds a year in Canada and the U.S. Cats, feral and domestic, kill another 2.6 billion a year.
We don’t know much about how climate change has affected bird populations. More frequent, stronger storms already are being seen and will impact bird migrations. Coastal flooding might destroy habitat and food opportunities in long-established stopover areas.
Mass Audubon, a Massachusetts conservation society, has climate change projections showing that 43 per cent of species it evaluated are highly vulnerable to climate change over the next 30 years.
There is some good news about bird populations – Canadian waterfowl numbers have been increasing. So have raptors. This is attributable to better wetlands and hunting management and pesticide controls.
This gives hope that with more awareness and more dedicated action, population declines in other species are reversible.