Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Bird Population Decline

Dear Bird Folks,

The news about the avian population decline (three billion fewer birds) is really distressing. While I’m fully aware that any impactful remediation needs to happen at the governmental level, is there anything meaningful that individuals can do?

– Steve, Pleasantville, NY


Yes, it is, Steve,

The decline of birds certainly is distressing, but it doesn’t really shock me. Environmental safeguards are constantly being challenged or rolled back. Even our own Endangered Species Act, the once shining beacon of forward thinking and future preservation, has been significantly weakened. The strange thing is this all-important edict was signed into law by, of all people, President Richard Nixon. Can you believe it? (Who thought the day would come when I would miss Nixon?) While we wait for our country to once again become an environmental leader, there are indeed things we can do as individuals that will make an impact. Although it’s kind of like telling people they should go on a diet and exercise more. Intellectually, they agree, but when it comes to action, they turn into raging excusers and deniers. For example…

Our pets are a huge problem. Today, or on whatever day you are reading this, domestic housecats will kill eight million of our birds. They will kill another eight million birds tomorrow and eight million more the day after. Without passing any laws or seeking government help, we could save eight million birds a day just by keeping our housecats in the house. Anytime I mention this problem, the deniers tell me their cat is too fat or too lazy to bother birds. Or it wears a bell or it never bothers anything, blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it all before. But if we are serious about saving the dwindling bird population, we need to keep our cats inside. And before you accuse me of picking on cats, don’t worry, dogs are next.

Last spring I wrote an entire column about how the beloved family dog is negatively impacting the environment. This time though, I’ll keep it to a single paragraph. When I was growing up, our dog lived in our yard, just like everyone else’s dog. When we went out, the dog stayed home and when we returned, we played with it. Somewhere along the way, people decided that dogs shouldn’t play in their own yard, but instead they should be walked around the neighborhood. Fine. I have no problem with that. But apparently, even the neighborhood isn’t good enough for some dogs. Dogs by the thousands are now driven, not to parks or athletic fields, but to beaches, nature preserves and conservation lands. Some dogs are kept on leashes while others are let loose, evidently because their owners think the laws don’t apply to them. On the surface, walking a dog through the woods seems harmless. It’s not. A recent study reports that when a wildlife area is subject to regular dog activity, the number of breeding birds drops by forty percent. Birds simply are afraid to raise their families in an area that is constantly being invaded by potential predators. We may love dogs, but birds not so much. Now that I’ve bashed dogs and cats, what’s next, flowers? Yup.

Admittedly, I don’t know a whole bunch about flowers. In the past, I just bought whatever plant looked pretty. I was wrong. It turns out plants and flowers are much more than something to be looked at or sniffed. Native plants are critically important to the ecosystem. They feed bees, bats, butterflies and the insects that birds depend upon. Natives also require less water and fertilizer, and need no pesticides. Regrettably, many of the plants sold in big box stores are non-native and offer no real environmental benefit. Shopping at a smaller nursery, where the knowledgeable staff can guide you to the best native plants, is better for your yard, and your birds.

At least once a year, each one of us will walk outside and find a dead or injured bird lying below one of our windows. It’s sad, but it’s only a single bird, right? Yes, it’s a single bird, but if you multiply that bird times the number of homes and buildings in the country, it will give you an idea of how many birds (600 million) we lose to window strikes each year. Unlike controlling cats and dogs, and using native plants, there is no guaranteed fix for this problem, but we can try. Certain windows are more problematic than others, so we should focus on the bad ones first. In my yard, the feeder birds would hit my windows whenever they were panicked by hunting hawks. So, I moved my feeders right next to the house. Now the birds can only fly in one direction, away from the windows. Problem solved. On the other side of my house, a different window, for whatever reason, was routinely being hit. In addition to attaching special ultraviolet decals, I also added a streamer of reflective ribbon that is attached by a suction cup. This combination has made a huge improvement. Various websites offer a whole host of window strike preventers and while none of them are perfect, doing something is better than doing nothing. Do something.

Solar panels, electric cars, organic produce and more responsible government officials will all improve things in the long run, Steve. But keeping our cats inside and our dogs out of wildlife areas, buying native plants and preventing window strikes will produce immediate and significant results. And the best part is we can do all of these things without dieting or exercising more. It’s a win, win, win, win, win, win.