Oaktober’s Call to Arms!

By Trish Beckjord

“To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marvelling at birds and revelling in the natural world around us, was a simple miracle. And I wondered why we were so rarely able to appreciate it.”
― Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir

I posted a picture to Facebook once with the comment “…I think I might have too many bird feeders…” There were six – not counting the suet feeder – in my small back yard. I have so many, simply because I love birds, but I wonder if there wasn’t something happening subliminally in my awareness.

That something was reported earlier this month in Science. The first study of its kind, it has raised a firestorm of attention. The title of the Science report, Decline of the North American Avifauna, doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off, but the headlines of other news media reports about the Science article make the results of the studies clear. I for one am appreciative of the summaries such as from the New York Times, National Audubon Society, and Scientific American.

Examining collated data from a variety of population assessment methods, the study authors found that North America has lost more than 25% of its bird population in the last 50 years. That’s equivalent to a population decline of 3 billion birds (or actually 29 percent to be exact.)

Imagine. Three billion birds lost; some killed, some just never born. More than 500 species of birds were evaluated. Many species common in our own backyards are included in the decline. Even starlings, an introduced bird now considered a pest by many, have declined 49 percent. And, as a conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara points out in the NYT article, declining populations of little brown birds are not likely to be viewed with the same concern as when we rallied around to save the bald eagle.

But rally round we must. About 90% of the 529 species reviewed in the study came from 12 distinct bird families such as sparrows, blackbirds, finches, and warblers all of which support the landscapes in which we live. The numbers for individual species are staggering. We cannot do without birds, and if we think we can – or that we seem to be getting along fine so far – we are like the frog in the pot of cold water on the stove, unaware that the heat is on and that the water is slowly warming to a boil. The “ecosystem services” birds provide include pollination, seed distribution, pest control and helping to regenerate our forests as well as supporting species higher on the food chain.

Habitat loss due to development – including that of industrial agriculture – is thought to be the single biggest contributing factor. Birds that nest in grassland habitats that have coincidentally seen the biggest loss due to development, have seen the largest population decline; 717 million birds across 31 species, or a loss of greater than 40%.

There are other contributing factors as well including increased pesticide use such as neonicotinoids. The Times report mentions a recent study that found that use of these pesticides makes it harder for birds to put on weight which delays their migration. The impact of these two issues – habitat loss and increase pesticide use – is further compounded by additional factors such as lower insect populations, bird collisions and death with glass windows in high rise buildings, and the changing climate which can disrupt the timing of the flowering-insect-bird migration cycle.  

And while there is some good news in the study, wetland bird species increased by 20 million birds (more than 10 percent), there is a lot of room for work. The recovery of the bald eagle and the population growth of our wetland bird species shows us that we can make a difference. We just need to understand the problem and bring our attention to bear. Doug Tallamy’s idea of a national back yard park is now even more critical for us to consider implementing.

Cornell and its partners have launched a web site, www.3BillionBirds.org, as a result of this study. Take some time to visit it. Consider the seven steps you can take as a homeowner that are listed there. Then add these further recommendations to the list…

  • Financially support your local park and forest preserve district so they have sufficient budget to properly manage and enhance their natural areas to best support pollinators and birds and acquire new land for you to enjoy!
  • Start asking your municipality to use native plants in standard gardens around public buildings and public institutions as an example to the larger community.
  • Request that language for a landscape ordinance be developed that requires a percentage of native species be used in developments. If there is not one already, ask that a street tree ordinance be put in place that includes an approved list of species most of which are native.
  • Look again at your own yard. If you haven’t done so already add some natives – particularly trees and shrubs to start. Include an oak for sure and get the biggest bang for your buck. Think about whether you really need all that lawn.
  • Reach out to local organizations if you don’t know where to start; local land trusts, forest preserve and park district naturalists, and NGOs such as Wild Ones.
  • Look for native plant sales in the spring; these are typically staffed by people who have a lot of knowledge.
  • Ask about native plants at your local independent garden center. Ask if they can order them for you. Be persistent. They won’t carry an inventory of them if they don’t perceive a need.
  • Find a landscape contractor who is knowledgeable about native plants or is able to find someone to help them with natives. Be firm that you want them to have this knowledge within their business.
  • Talk to your neighbors and elsewhere in your community about the results of this study and the need to include native plants in our yards and gardens. Get certified and advertise that you are a Conservation@Home yard. The Conservation@Home program through The Conservation Foundation will help you find the organization that will help you that is best located to where you live.

As Richard Louv said, “…I’ve never been all that attracted to gardening. But the act of creating a backyard wildlife habitat … does capture my imagination…”

I hope – for all us – it captures yours! This is the best thing I can propose in celebration of Oaktober. We must get to work.
“The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.”― Julie Zickefoose, Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay


Silent Skies: Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished, Scientific American Sept. 19, 2019 

North America Has Lost More Than 1 in 4 Birds in Last 50 Years, New Study Says 

Birds Are Vanishing From North America

A Troubling Decline in North American Birds

The State of the World’s Birds 2018 

Giving Ecological Purpose to Your Landscape. Doug Tallamy. Connecticut Horticultural Society. 

How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone – And a Homegrown National Park. Richard Louv.

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