Bye, Bye, Birdies?
By Sue Schenk, Claremont Garden Club
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 many 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, just the hummingbirds, but in other parts of the world there are many plants that depend on different species of birds for pollination. 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, indeed. A recent Sustainable Claremont dialog painted quite a concerning picture (a link to the “Birds in our Midst” YouTube video is available under the resources heading at sustainableclaremont.org). There are almost three billion—yes, billion—fewer birds in North America now, according to the annual count, than there were in 1970, which is not good news for any of us.
The reasons for this are many and complicated:
• Habitat loss resulting from the conversion of land to agriculture and housing has seriously reduced food and nesting sites for many birds and is the biggest problem.
• Herbicides and pesticides have reduced the numbers of insects and seeds available—these can kill birds directly 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 are unable to adjust to the changes quickly enough or at all.
• Hard surfaces they encounter while flying kill approximately about one billion birds annually including windows, buildings, power lines, cell towers, and a small but increasing number from wind turbines.
• Plastic pollution is an increasingly serious threat, especially to shore birds sickened or killed by the tiny pieces in the ocean.
• Invasive species such as mosquitos can carry bird flu, which devastated Claremont’s crow population approximately a decade ago, which allowed a population explosion of pesky fox squirrels. It is estimated that cats account for the loss of over 2 billion birds a year.
While these facts are depressing, there are many ways we can each help:
• Habitat loss: We can support preserving as many natural areas as possible, even those 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 in all seasons there is something in bloom, and let many plants set seeds. We can include ponds or birdbaths in our gardens.
• Poisons: We can abstain from use of pesticides and herbicides 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, in addition to the insects we don’t kill that prey on the leaf-eating varieties, will help to keep them under control.
• Climate change: We can keep current on the measures to take in our daily lives—each of us is a small yet important part of the battle, and our cumulative effect can be considerable. We can also keep track of proposed legislation and support efforts that will help.
• Hard Surfaces: We can locate bird feeders within three feet of a window (birds can’t get up much speed in that distance) or over 30 feet away. We can put reflective strips or stickers, or paint designs on windows to alert birds to their presence. Mosquito screens or tall plants in front of the window can have the same effect.
• Plastics: We can do our best to reduce the amount of plastic we use. 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 which threatens 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 pets indoors. It’s safer for the birds and lizards 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, a “catio” (while rather silly, that is the actual name) may be the answer. The YouTube video mentioned above includes photos of various types, ranging from an enclosed window box to an entire enclosed patio area, similar to 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”!
The Claremont Garden Club (claremontgardenclub.org) is a working group of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).