When news broke last week that North America has lost a quarter of its bird population since 1970, America gasped.
John Riggle didn’t.
“Frankly, I wasn’t surprised,” said the secretary of the Prairie Lakes chapter of the National Audubon Society in Alexandria. “Saddened, of course, but not surprised. As a keen observer of nature all my life, I’ve seen a drop in the bird population first-hand.”
Two birds once common in west-central Minnesota, including Douglas County — the yellow-headed blackbird and the western meadowlark — are noticeably fewer these days, said Riggle and bird expert Ben Eckhoff, a DNR naturalist at Lake Carlos State Park.
“Those are two species that people would have seen around here as kids,” Eckhoff said.
The meadowlark has suffered because of habitat loss, Eckhoff said. Much of the Conservation Reserve Program acres in this area, once used for nesting, have reverted to farmland.
The yellow-headed blackbird has suffered as a turbulent climate has caused either drought or floods to ruin the deep wetlands it uses for habitat, he said.
Meanwhile, other human practices have taken their toll on all birds, such as spraying broad-spectrum pesticides, killing insects that birds rely on for their meals, he said. Some birds are insectivores, with 50 to 100 percent of their diet coming from insects. Some insects damage crops; others spread disease. The sprays, however, don’t discriminate between good and bad bugs.
“We’re killing lots of things, not just the ones we’re targeting,” Eckhoff said. “We’re harming not just that species of insect but many others and on up the food chain.”
Bird lovers say they take heart from the concern young people have shown for the environment and from efforts that have saved certain bird populations like the eagle and trumpeter swan from extinction.
“We’ve definitely made some progress,” Eckhoff said.
Those successes came from partnerships between hunting enthusiasts like Ducks Unlimited and conservationists such as The Nature Conservancy. The DNR is continuing to develop a north-south corridor of native prairie for birds, mammals and insects, called a Native Prairie Bank. Soil and Water Conservation districts also have programs that help reduce habitat loss.
Can Americans build on these efforts to reverse the widespread loss of other birds?
“We have to,” Riggle said. “The very sustainability of the planet is at stake.”
How to help birds
- Make windows safer. Trees and sky reflect off the glass, tricking birds into thinking your windows are habitat that it can fly through. Sometimes hitting the window only stuns them, but often they end up dying. Sticking decals on the panes can help.
- Position your bird feeder just right. Have it 0-3 feet from your window, or at least 30 feet, but nothing in between. Having it close to the window will prevent the bird from getting enough momentum to hit the glass hard, and having it further away will give the bird enough space to avoid your window.
- Turn off lights at night. Birds navigate by starlight, and artificial light confuses them.
- Cut down on mowed areas and grow native plants in the unmowed areas. Avoid cultivars and plants that have been bred to include neonicotinoids, an insecticide. If you’re not sure about the plant and the nursery staff can’t tell you, DNR naturalist Ben Eckhoff advises not to buy it.
- Avoid pesticides. Pesticides don’t discriminate. They kill mosquitoes as well as bumblebees and bugs that birds feast on.
- Keep cats indoors. “Cats in general are estimated to kill 2.6 billion birds annually in the United States and Canada,” Eckhoff says.
- Join the local Audubon Society on a birding hike. Its next outing is Saturday, Oct. 5 at Lake Carlos State Park. Hikers will take off every half hour between 11 a.m.-3 p.m.