|Eastern bluebird on a nest box in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Populations have rebounded after plummeting in the early 20th century due to habitat loss and competing non-native species. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Matt Poole. Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: An Endless ‘Silent Spring’? Find Out on a Spring Walk (With the Birders)
By Joseph A. Davis
After a long winter, the birds are back in many places in North America. In others, not so much. The world of birds is changing, not only with the climate, but with the habitat and human influence. Bird populations in the United States and Canada are down in the last half-century nearly a third.
So while careful observation of birds is not only fascinating fun, it can also get you stories. Keep your eyes — and ears — open. Go for a walk. You can call it “birding” if you want, or you can call it reporting. Either way, take your notebook.
Why it matters
Ever hear of the canary in the coal mine? Yeah. Birds are some of the indicator species that tell us a lot about what is going on in the environment. And what is going wrong.
The question is whether a “Silent Spring,”
the title of Rachel Carson’s landmark
science book, is still going on.
The question is whether a “Silent Spring,” the title of Rachel Carson’s landmark science book, is still going on.
Yes, birds sing beautiful songs and have a lot to say. They have behavioral quirks and a social life. But it’s about more than just birds. They fit into larger habitats and many ecosystems.
Birds, as a taxonomical class, are older than humans. They evolved from dinosaurs some 150-165 million years ago. Evolutionarily, they have been extraordinarily successful. They diversified rapidly, and they live worldwide — about 10,000 species of them.
That hardly means they’ve had a smooth flight. Birds took a major hit during the end-Cretaceous extinction, 66 million years ago. They then diversified and evolved further after that.
But with the rise of chemical pesticides after World War II, birds took another hit. The pesticide DDT fatally thinned their eggshells, a problem magnified in birds of prey.
DDT is one of those chemicals that persists rather than breaking down, spreads and accumulates through ecosystems, and whose concentrations are magnified as it goes up the food chain.
Even the bald eagle, America’s national bird, became endangered. After DDT was banned in 1972, eagles gradually returned (yet these days bird flu is killing an alarming number of bald eagles and recent studies show birds of prey face a serious global decline).
Today, it’s not just DDT that’s the issue. There are many other problems affecting birds: invasive and introduced species, habitat loss, lead poisoning and, yes, climate change.
- Take a minute to think about what’s unique about your local or regional ecosystem. How is this reflected in birdlife? Do many birds there migrate seasonally? How do your local or regional environmental issues affect the birds?
- Find some local birding clubs and take a walk with them — or several walks in several types of ecosystems. Seek interview time outside the walk with the experts and leaders you meet.
- Ask experts and local birders what effects they are observing that might be attributed to climate change. Timing and patterns of migration? Timing and patterns of nesting, feeding, etc.?
- Ask local conservation groups (e.g., National Wildlife Federation or one of its state affiliates) what is happening with bird habitats in your area. Is it being lost? Are there efforts to preserve it? How are those efforts going?
- Identify designated wildlife refuges near to you (whether official or unofficial). There are likely lots of smaller sanctuaries that are not part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Find and explore them.
- Water is an important aspect of the habitat that many bird species rely on. What birds need water in your area, and what changes in water quantity and quality may affect birds?
- What are the important invasive bird species in your area? How have they affected other (native) birds?
- Is a large-scale die-off of insects — the “insect apocalypse” (may require subscription) — observable near you? Insects are often important in the diets of birds. How is this shaking out in your area? What do nearby biologists think?
- Try to find minority birders who can tell you about their experiences “birding while black” (may require subscription) (or Latino, etc.). Are local birding groups trying to be more inclusive? Is there an Outdoor Afro community near you? Remember, Black Birders Week this year runs May 29-June 4.
- How is avian flu affecting wild birds in your area? What other bird diseases are significant?
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: A research and teaching institution whose website has info on all birds and is especially good with audio of birds.
- National Audubon Society: The national group is a good source, plus pay attention also to the loosely (or not) affiliated network of local and regional Audubons.
- American Birding Association: A nationwide club for people sharing enthusiasm for birding. It produces lots of good interpretive materials.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: It runs the National Wildlife Refuges. See a list of refuges and a searchable map from USFWS.
- American Bird Conservancy: A national advocacy group seeking to preserve bird species.
- Birding apps: There are a lot of birding apps out now, worthwhile for special purposes (e.g., sound samples or note taking).
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.