While you might not always see a beaver or a white-tailed deer on an everyday basis, you can always rely on seeing birds wherever you go. And while is true, birds are not as common or abundant as they were in 1970…or even in the 1800’s. But, notably, in the last 50 years, a dramatic decline in bird numbers has been recognized. In fact, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a loss of close to 3 billion birds have been recorded across North America in the last half-century.
What is even more shocking is that these disappearing birds are not exclusively species at risk, but rather many common ‘backyard birds’ such as sparrows or blackbirds. Even birds who do not have specific habitat requirements are being affected by the increase in human-led activities of residential development or land conversions, which result in habitat losses and fragmentation. These generalist species have the largest population sizes and therefore represent the largest proportion of the declining birds.
In addition to backyard birds, Canada has lost 40-60% of shorebirds, grassland birds and aerial insectivore populations (flying insect-eating birds) since 1970 according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI-Canada). These losses are occurring despite many current initiatives for the conservation of various species. Shorebirds (i.e., plovers, sandpipers, stilts) rely on vital coastal habitats, mud flats, beaches, and wetlands for breeding; yet these sensitive areas are susceptible to development and human disturbance. Even more alarming, grassland birds (i.e., meadowlarks, sparrows) are experiencing a 57% decline in their populations, and similarly to shorebirds, they rely exclusively on a niche habitat. In agricultural areas, farming or land conversions pose the largest threat to these birds, with intensifying agricultural demands and the associated issues such as run-off. Barrens, alvars, and grassland habitats of The Land Between represent final strongholds. The greatest decline in bird populations are associated with aerial insectivores (swifts, swallows and flycatchers) that roost and feed on insects, often found in agricultural areas; and where pesticide use is prevalent for insect control. Their current decline is as dramatic as the loss of birds of prey in the 1950s, when a chemical known as DDT was used as an agricultural pesticide which decimated populations and has since been banned. The decline of the insect population because of pesticides and development, coupled with the rapid and ongoing increase in residential, commercial, and industrial development, which removes habitat, the result is obvious; huge declines of bird populations.
Additionally, human-kept cats create an additional and unnatural challenge for birds. Domestic cats are non-native invasive species in North America, who decimate native bird populations. Keeping cats inside can help save more than 200 million birds each year in Canada, according to Environment Canada. Across North America, domestic cats are responsible for injuring and killing up to 3.7 billion birds a year. Stray or feral cats are largely to blame as well: they typically live in colonies; often taking out large quantities of birds in a single day. Therefore, it is recommended that cat owners keep their pets indoors and away from native bird species.
Finally, despite keeping habitats healthy, once a night light is introduced, the impacts to all living creatures, but especially birds are detrimental. Night lights, and especially LEDs will distract and tire out both insects and birds. Birds have eyes that are 10x as sensitive to light as humans. Birds navigate using stars and the recent prevalence of LED lighting mimics daylight, confusing all insects, bats, birds, plants…all wildlife in the vicinity.
Birds are significant contributors to our ecosystems and provide a sense of happiness for human health. Birding is a long pastime that is currently shared by millions of birdwatchers in Canada and across North America. Birds are also responsible for distributing millions of seeds across our landscape which contributes to reforestation and biodiversity. Birds are also some of the best insect and pest control agents in the natural world; they scavenge and remove carcasses from our environment and are great at eating forest pests, mosquitoes and other deemed nuisances. Despite this natural bounty and blessing, we continue to spread harmful contaminants and pesticides, fragment or convert their habitats for human benefit, and light up the night putting our immediate comfort above nature, above our feathered friends, and above smarter solutions.
Reversing losses is actually easy! Birds respond quickly to habitat changes. We can begin in our backyards:
- Use amber or red lighting; no wildlife or human confuses these colours with stars or daylight, and we can see better in the dark with these choices too! Alternatively use low wattage, capped and timed or motion sensor lighting solutions for outside areas.
- Keep the native plants on your property and instead limb trees rather than cutting them
- Choose native plants for any existing ornamental gardens areas, and keep these areas connected to other natural features for more habitat. Reduce any unnecessary lawn areas.
- Keeping house cats inside and controlling feral cat populations
- Protecting and improving wetlands, grassland fields and forests
- Eliminate insecticide sprays and instead let the birds do their jobs to balance the environment
- Protect ‘backyard birds’ from human-caused injury or death by applying visible decals to windows on your homes