Canary in the Coal Mine
Published in the Toronto Star – February 11, 2017
Consider this: One in four Canadians buy bird food and/or consume ‘birding’ products. The average amount spent is $1,000 per year. If that sounds crazy, count me as one of the crazy ones. With 14 feeding stations on my property, I spend a lot of time and money providing sustenance to my local bird population.
Most Canadian bird lovers live with the fantasy that we feed them to help the little darlings along the way. They need us.
Not true. If all of us hung up our feeders in the garage and stopped feeding the local bird population they would be fine. We feed them to bring them to us: they are our entertainment.
However, the part about them ‘being just fine’ is not accurate. According to Bird Studies Canada, the countries foremost authority on the subject, our bird population is anything but ‘fine’. There are many bird species in decline. The population of Eastern Meadowlarks, chimney swifts, Barn Swallows and nighthawks are all in trouble, if the numbers mean anything. Across Canada, 4 bird species in 10 are in some form of long-term decline, some of them quite seriously. “When bird populations change so profoundly, we are seeing a clear sign of environmental decline that affects our health, happiness and even livelihoods.” says Steven Price, President of Bird Studies Canada.
After years of reviewing the facts, Bird Studies Canada has determined that birds are an excellent ‘indicator’ of environmental health and trends. BSC uses their now famous ‘citizen science’ models to help them determine how many birds are out there, one species at a time.
Here are some of the facts, courtesy BSC:
- Birds eat enormous amounts of seeds, fruits, insects and invertebrates. Changes in bird population numbers often reflect changes in less visible forms of life in nature. Put another way, a decline in some bird species may allow for an unnatural outbreak of certain insect infestations. A farm without a hawk or other raptor hovering over the fields will have far more rodents prowling around.
- Birds provide ‘eco systems’ services. This scientific term is used to describe the control of insects and rodents by birds. And their recycling of organic material through their scavenging, dispersals of seeds and fruits. Steven adds, “If we had to pay for these services it would cost the economy billions of dollars.
- Birds are a ‘canary in the environmental coal mine’. For example, the dramatic decline of the Bald Eagle population, two generations ago, was an indicator of the effects of the chemical DDT on our natural landscape. Once humans were alerted to it we mobilized to change our behaviour (though, none too soon).
- For all of the discussion about how birds meet their demise at the ‘hands of man’, none is more impactful than cats. I am not suggesting that you should get rid of your cat, but be mindful of the impact that a cat with claws can have in your yard and neighbourhood. Consider not letting it out of doors or limiting their time outdoors to the night hours when bird activity is low.
- Plant native shrubs and trees, especially those that produce fruit. To maintain a healthy bird population, plant Service berry, mountain ash, American highbush cranberry and many native perennials that can stand upright over winter to provide food and shelter for birds.
What can I do?
You can help to build a database of information about birds and the bird population by joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 17 to 20, 2017. Take 15 minutes per day (or more) to count the birds and species in your yard or community (you can take a walk through a local park or conservation area if you like, don’t restrict yourself to your ‘backyard’). Report the numbers that you record on the Bird Studies Canada website.
This information is aggregated across the country, as it has been for many years. With these numbers, BSC can determine the increase or decline of bird populations across the country.
Project Feeder Watch.
Another great way to get engaged and help is to count the birds on your feeder and report them to BSC on their website. Project Feeder Watch was instigated by Bird Studies Canada in 1976. Through a partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology as their U.S. partner, they have expanded the program to cover the entire continent. The program occurs from November through April (so there is no better time to get started than now). For details of both programs visit www.birdscanada.org.
By the numbers:
$5 billion – the value of equipment, feed/seed, supplies, vacations and other items related to amateur birding in North America per year.
50 million – the number of birdwatchers in North America
9 out of 10 birders are ‘backyard’ birders vs. wilderness birders
25% of all Canadians buy bird products and feed wild birds
(Stats courtesy Bird Studies Canada)