For the Love of Birds

By Jessica Shepherd

I take heart in knowing that birds, and a number of other wild species, responded so quickly and positively to the change in human behaviors foisted upon us by the pandemic. 

Mid-winter darkness begrudgingly yields to dawn and the Kenai Mountains stand in silhouette against the southern skyline. From my office window I can just make out the birdfeeders where they hang from the garden fence, rocking gently in a cold wind. Soon, winged visitors will swoop in and my bird watching pleasure will begin. My first outing into the wintery yard, wearing house shoes and a hastily thrown on jacket, will be to brush off the dusting of last night’s snow and add sunflower seeds to each tray. I do not especially like winter, but the busy comings and goings of chickadees, nuthatches, Steller’s jays, a dozen pine grossbeaks, and the occasional furtive squirrel, are a compensation in these cold, dark days. 

Now that I’ve retired and Covid-19 has curtailed our winter travel plans, I spend a good deal of time in my office chair gazing at a computer screen or, by way of a distraction, out the window. Early this fall I decided to relocate the feeders from beyond the kitchen window to the front of the house where I can watch my feathered darlings while I write or work on budget spreadsheets for my husband’s consulting business. Through the double-pane windows I often hear the cheery twitter of grossbeaks or the conversational chatter of magpies from their perch atop the greenhouse.

While I’ve long enjoyed the activity of birds, this year my awareness of their proximity and behaviors has intensified. In the summer, with more time to linger in the garden, I tuned into the territorial songs of robins from high amid the spruce trees and the subtle rustle of hermit thrush in the underbrush of alders. With winter upon us, I find myself scanning the sky to locate the merry chitter of pine siskins as they circle from birch to spruce and back again, or coming to a standstill as chickadees thread around me on their way to assail the feeder. Perhaps there are more birds this year than in years past, or maybe the world is quieter, without Ravn Air overflights and rush hour traffic on East End Road, so their songs are more easily heard.

You may have read about a study of sparrows in the San Francisco area which found that, as traffic noise died down in the wake of the pandemic, white-crowned sparrows sang quieter, more elaborate songs which, as it turned out, made them more appealing to females of their species. Apparently, to be heard over the roar of traffic, they had adapted by singing loudly and without much flourish, like people yelling to be overheard in a crowded bar. But, after traffic thinned to a trickle during the early days of the pandemic, they quickly reverted to more sophisticated, sultrier calls from decades and generations past. Moreover, it appears male birds exhibit less aggression toward one another when they clearly hear each other. Give that some thought.

I take heart in knowing that birds, and a number of other wild species, responded so quickly and positively to the change in human behaviors foisted upon us by the pandemic. At Chicago’s Montrose Beach, the pandemic suppressed  the usual droves of beachgoers and off-leash dogs, resulting in the first nesting success for endangered piping plovers in decades.

I’m also cheered to read about an increased interest in bird-watching in New York City, Los Angeles and points in between. Even in the economic downturn, bird feeders, birdbaths and binoculars are flying off the shelf (pardon the pun). Pair that with a sharp uptick in backyard, patio and rooftop gardens, and we can infer a growing appreciation for outdoor spaces and the birds who inhabit them. This can only be good news for birds. I’m certain the food I put out on stormy days has the potential to save birds’ lives. A bird bath or other access to fresh water during a drought will do likewise.

A comprehensive study of bird populations in North America, undertaken by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the National Wildlife Research Centre of Canada, and others, found a loss of three billion birds, equaling a decline of 29% since 1970. By any logical measure, this is a crisis. That's one in four birds gone in the past 50 years. In the boreal environs we call home the decline is even higher, at 33% for boreal forest birds and 37% for shorebirds.

Those numbers bear out here in Homer. For example, birder George Matz and a small legion of volunteers conduct the annual Kachemak Shorebird Monitoring Program each May. Comparing their findings to population numbers collected by zoologist George West in the late eighties and early nineties points to an overall decline of 45%.

For those of you who know your bird songs, how long has it been since you heard a Swainson’s thrush? Or a Wilson’s warbler? Both populations are in steep decline. Even the perky dark-eyed juncos, common overwintering birds who enjoy feeding on spilled seeds below the feeder, have declined by a third.

What’s driving this decline?  Habitat destruction is certainly a main cause, with forests giving way to housing developments and grasslands to agricultural fields. Additionally, pesticide use and treated seeds, now ubiquitous to modern agriculture, are highly toxic to birds, bees and butterflies as well as the insects they target. Imagine what they’re doing to us, the hapless consumers of those foods? And let’s not forget these purring, personable bird killers who share our homes. Feral and Domestic cats kill more than 2.6 billion birds every year in the United States alone.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. Waterfowl, thanks to efforts by organizations like Ducks Unlimited, are up 50% nationwide. And raptors, like our stately bald eagles who experienced a steep decline across the lower 48 states from the damaging effects of DDT on their eggs, have increased in numbers and range significantly. Maybe, post-Covid, if we collectively continue to work from home, reduce traffic and keep the bird feeders full, we’ll begin to see bird populations recover.

For those of us who strive to exercise greater mindfulness, what better practice than tuning into the now-ness of birds as they go about their busy lives? And what better home-school project than to identify, photograph, and learn about the birds sharing our backyards? With the minimal purchase of a feeder and a bird guide, plus a trusty pair of binoculars, we can beget future naturalists.   Older children and adults may enjoy the use of phone apps like Cornell’s Merlin to identify birds and contribute to databases like e-bird to help track and quantify our feathered friends.

As for me, daylight is fully upon us and the first Steller’s jay has coasted in for breakfast. Time to brave the cold and top off the feeder. The birds are waiting.