“As the world continues to hunker down, birds can be a beacon of hope.”
So said Ken Rosenberg, applied conservation scientist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who also leads research and planning with the American Bird Conservancy.
He and other bird experts recently presented a Zoom program called Enjoying and Helping Birds at Home that can be seen on the ABC’s Youtube channel. In it, experts agreed that feeding, housing and just watching birds at home can be a source of joy — and therapy — in these difficult times.
“I find that birding is a stress reducer,” said ABC President Mike Parr.
“Birding will bring miracles to your door,” said Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association. “It’s like having Netflix with a constant supply of new episodes. Only with birding, the quality never falls off.”
But as much as birds can help us through these stressful times, we can help them much more. By simply providing birds with food, water and a safe environment around our homes, we can help reverse a trend that is more than alarming.
Rosenberg was the lead author in a study that showed the population of breeding adult birds in the United States and Canada has dropped by almost three billion since 1970. So-called “common” birds have suffered 90% of the losses — birds like sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches. Loss of habitat seems to be the major cause.
Jennifer Cipolletti, director of conservation advocacy for the ABC, said there are a number of ways to reduce threats to birds around your home, starting with windows.
An estimated 1 billion birds die in window collisions each year in the U.S. alone. That’s because birds are unable to see what’s on the other side of clear glass. If they see trees and sky reflected in it, they think there’s more habitat and keep flying, said Cipolletti, who began her conservation career at Lake Metroparks in Kirtland, Ohio.
Putting screens on glass windows and doors is one simple solution. Others include decorations or decals, but they need to be on the outside of the glass, and should be no more than two inches apart. Cipolletti suggested having the kids paint flowers or handprints in tempera paint, or purchasing protective tape or decals from home improvement stores or conservation groups like the ABC.
These groups also recommend contacting your U.S. representative to voice support for the Bird-Safe Buildings Act introduced in the House last year, as well as opposition to easing restrictions and penalties in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Cipolletti said cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds each year. She and other conservationists say cats should be kept indoors, or on a leash or contained in a “catio.” (Note: this may not be doable on farms.)
Manicured lawns are another problem, especially if they are planted with color-coated seed that could be toxic to birds.
“And don’t spray for anything,” Cipolletti warned.
Food and water
The goal is to minimize grass and go for all-native plants: Evergreens and brush of varying heights and types that provide winter cover and protection from predators. And a home for insects, which are the staple in most migratory birds’ diets.
“So don’t rake your leaves and don’t cut down your flowers in the fall,” Cipolletti said, then added: “Building a bug hotel is a fun thing that kids can do right now.”
Gordon said to avoid cheap, store-bought bird seed that can be full of filler. Black oil sunflower seed, peanuts (full or half shelled), thistle and millet are some better options, he said, along with suet that attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches and catbirds, among others. Low-waste bird seed is also available.
Even if you can’t put up bird feeders, provide water, he said. Even a dish of water or a mister can provide migrating birds with a drink. Just make sure there is a battery- or solar-powered bubbler or fountain to keep the water moving and avoid mosquitoes. Plus, birds must keep their feathers clean, and need a safe place to do that.
“Bathing is a time of high anxiety for birds,” he said. “If they go down to a pond or a stream, a predator or a fish could eat them.”
Gordon said birding has taken him from Alaska to South Africa and has been the basis of most of his lasting friendships.
“Many of the people on the panel today are scientists who’ve traveled the world,” he said. “But seeing these things in your own backyard is unbeatable.”
Get kids interested
He and his American Birding Association are big on getting kids interested in birding. The association usually has a kids’ camp in Colorado, although that is on hold right now because of the coronavirus. So the best place to do it currently is at home.
“Small kids are not going to be drawn to birds unless they can see them up close,” said Gordon, who got his start trying to identify birds at the feeder at age 12. One thing that helps in that department is the improved technology in today’s cameras — even cell phone cameras — and using those photos with apps and social media.
The ABA’s What’s this Bird page on Facebook is “a no-shame area” where members can find out what species they are looking at and perhaps boast a little.
“People post photos of the fish they caught or the buck they bagged, why not birds?” Gordon said.
The technology can also be used to help birds in a big way, by becoming citizen scientists.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird app allows you to enter bird sightings, which immediately go to “the world’s largest biodiversity database,” Rosenberg said. “Just download the free app. It shows a list of birds in your area, your location, and you can submit sightings with one tap.”
The eBird app is also used in the global Great Backyard Bird Count every February and the Global Big Days counts in October and May. The Big Days count May 9 drew more than 50,000 participants and identified more than 6,400 species worldwide.
The birds.cornell.edu site lists other, ongoing bird counts. Project FeederWatch just ended in April, while NestWatch is getting underway. The website also provides K-12 education programs that can be useful in these days when children are off school.
Another website, AllAboutBirds.org/CornellFeeders, provides 24-hour birdwatching “for those who are stuck indoors,” Rosenberg said.
Any and all of these citizen-science/bird-helping activities can help reverse the disturbing trend that Rosenberg and other scientists found in their study, released last September. Only a few species — including waterfowl, like ducks and geese, and raptors, like eagles — increased their numbers since 1970.
“Birding is something that can contribute to your life meaningfully, and that you can contribute to meaningfully,” Gordon said. “Birds remain a beacon of hope — or a source of serenity, if you’ve been to too many Zoom meetings.”
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