• Donald Attwood

Seven steps


Cape May warblers were spotted by the author in Hudson during springtime as they were foraging on spruce trees in Benson Park.

Last fall a team of Canadian and American ornithologists reported that North American bird populations shrank in the last 50 years by nearly 3 billion birds. That’s 30 per cent of the 1970 bird population. One sponsor of this study was the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and on their website I found a list of seven ways that everyone could help birds survive:

Make windows safer

Every year in Canada, millions of birds die in collisions with house windows. As described in an earlier column, they can be saved by putting unobtrusive stickers or decals on our windows.

Plant more native species and fewer lawns

Habitat loss is the biggest cause of declining bird and other species. Cutting down forests, plowing under grasslands, and ‘developing’ wetlands – that is, the relentless expansion of freeways, shopping malls, and suburbs – is how this happens. (Just look around.) Suburban lawns give very little back. Lawns are of mild interest to robins and starlings, species that are not in any danger. For most birds, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands are essential habitat.

A good way to attract birds is to plant native trees and shrubs, thus replacing a bit of what’s been taken away. These plants produce the seeds and fruits that birds love and are hosts for native insects, which are essential food for birds. I saw my first Cape May warblers in downtown Hudson. It was spring and the warblers were passing through on their way to the boreal forest where they nest and feast on spruce budworms. When I spotted them, they were foraging on spruce trees in Benson Park.

Native oaks host a great variety of butterflies and moths, a feast for many birds. Native species of willow, cherry, birch, dogwood, holly, elderberry, mulberry, juniper, serviceberry, viburnum, blackberry, and raspberry provide fruits, insects, and nesting spaces attractive to birds.

Of course, the real answer to habitat loss (and to climate change) is sensible land-use policies, requiring sustained effort at all levels of government. Meanwhile, where I live, the town council is making regressive decisions favouring the destruction of yet more habitat by real estate developers.

Avoid pesticides

When was the last time you had to scrape bugs off your windshield? Decades ago, this was a routine chore when driving around. Exterminating insects means exterminating a great many birds that eat insects.

Thirty years ago, Hudson passed a by-law forbidding pesticide use in lawn and garden care. This by-law was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada and set an example for many other communities. However, pesticides are still routinely used in surrounding farmlands. Newer pesticides may be less of a threat to our health, but they are harmful to birds both directly (as poisons) and indirectly (as destroying the insects on which birds feed). We can eschew pesticides on our lawns and gardens and eat more organic foods. We can also plant flowers that attract insect pollinators.

Drink shade-grown, Bird-friendly coffee

Help protect the dwindling tropical forests where our migratory birds spend half their lives. More on this next time.

Use less plastic

And use less everything, especially fossil fuels. Earth can no longer absorb all our wastes.

And yes, keep cats indoors

Every year in the US, cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds. A fair estimate for Canadian cats, then, would be 130 to 400 million bird deaths per year. We’re cat lovers at our house, and our cats once roamed free. Now they stay inside, where they’re safer and the birds are too.

Watch birds and nature, share what you learn

Teach children about nature; introduce them to animals and plants. Observe local birds. The eBird app is easy to use and generates an essential database from reports by citizen scientists worldwide.

Having considered the statistics, we arrive at a character-defining moment: How much do we care for our fellow creatures? This question is posed in terms of birds, but it applies as well to other, less charismatic creatures. Over the last 10 generations, humans have reaped a huge subsidy from the natural world, exploiting it by (among other things) destroying life-giving systems such as old-growth forests, grasslands, wetlands, and tropical reefs. But that phase in Earth history is coming to a close, and certain accounts are falling due.

Offering such services as insect control, plant pollination, and seed dispersal, birds are essential to healthy ecosystems. If we try to save the birds, we might also save ourselves because we live on the generosity of nature, and that needs to be acknowledged. If we can’t return that generosity, my guess is we’re in deep trouble.

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