Songbirds

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

When I taught a Conservation of Natural Resources course, I asked my students if they could connect the disappearance of North American songbirds with North American fast food establishments. We would conclude that converting South American tropical rain forests to pastures for cattle destined to become hamburgers sold in our fast-food emporiums was the connection. Loss of tropical rain forests meant loss of winter habitat that adversely impacts migratory songbird populations. It was so convenient. They, the South American ranchers, were sooo bad, and we were somewhat less guilty by eating tons of hamburger.

Guess what? It isn’t that simple. We North Americans may be just as guilty, or more so, than the South American rancher. The decline in songbird numbers is well documented in North America. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey on every June 18. Since 1966, birders have noted bird species and numbers along designated routes. In the past 25 years many species dropped in numbers. An example is the olive-sided flycatcher, a big fellow, widely distributed in coniferous forests and bogs in the western United States and Canada. It migrates from northern South America. I like this bird. From the top of tall trees and snags he waits for insect prey, calling loudly, “Hey, good cheer” or “Hey, free beer,” depending on your mood and inclination. Its numbers have declined some 48% in the last 25 years, 22% since 1980. Many other species are in trouble as well.

The problem at this end seems to be due to a number of factors relating to habitat fragmentation, increase in numbers of cowbirds, and increased access to remaining habitat by various predators. Millions of acres of former habitat have been broken up by logging, farming, and development. Smaller patches of habitat create many more miles of edge around them than one would find in a large, continuous patch. Edges mean intermediate complex habitat that give predators access to songbirds and their nests.

Cowbirds, worse than some people’s relatives by marriage, are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in other birdies’ nests. Some species toss out the deviant egg, or build another nest atop, ad infiniturn. Other species feed the cowbird chick at the expense of their own nestlings. As cowbird numbers rise, neotropical songbird numbers plummet. Other predators, from snakes and raccoons to the neighbor’s %*$#@A^! cat, make further inroads. It’s not a pretty sight.

Neither are the once vast temperate coniferous rain forests of the Pacific northwest. When flying north to Vancouver, British Columbia, and back again not long ago, I was once again stricken by the sight of the patchwork quilt below. Clear-cut after clear-cut passed by mile after mile. Some had young trees, more seemed to have the reddish brown aspect of exposed bare soil below the shrubs. I know that those forests provided jobs for many and wood fiber for my home. For that I am grateful. But I also know that those vast forests will never ever be the same and that I may never hear the all excited flycatcher’s welcome call again. For that I am sad.

The fragmented forest may no longer be home for flying squirrels, red-backed voles, olive-sided flycatchers and the like, but the haunts of less desirable species like boobs, ninnies, yahoos, and addlebrained nincompoops who think only of themselves, and think that environmentalists are worse than communists. We are not the richer for that.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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