What Can We Do to Stop The Worldwide Decline of our Wild Songbirds?
Songbirds - How to help stop their decline
Imagine a world without the songs of birds. Imagine an eerie silence where once there was the song of a nightingale, a mimic thrush or a wren. What if skylarks were no longer around to fill warm, blue spring and summer days with their unbroken songs?
The plain truth is, songbirds are in decline the world over, from Australia to the UK, from the fringes of Europe to the USA. In Canada and India. As human populations rise and more land is cleared to grow much needed food crops and for house building and industrial expansion, it's inevitable that wildlife is going to suffer.
So just what can ordinary people like you and me do to help stop the decline of songbirds?
This issue of environment versus human need isn't new, it's been going on for millenia, ever since humans stepped out of their caves in search of food and water. Basically, as we've progressed as a species more and more disturbance has taken place, up until now, when some might argue we've reached a kind of tipping point.
The figures for numbers of songbirds killed each year worldwide are alarming to say the least. It runs into the hundreds of millions. If you look at the National Audubon Society website they estimate that between 1.3 and 4 billion birds are killed each year by cats alone, in the USA.
But cats aren't the only cause.
A detailed and revealing book that sets out just how serious the situation is for many species of songbird.
Main Reasons for Decline of Songbirds
- Loss of habitat - Intensive farming has led to more acres of wild land being used for crops. As orchards, copses, trees and shrubs and wild fringes are cleared this means there is nowhere for songbirds to feed and nest. Rapid sowing methods and quick growing crops lead to all season growing which means more disturbance in fields and around farms.
- Use of pesticides - Many farmers use pesticides to keep bugs and pests away from food crops. These are powerful chemicals - especially the neonicotinoids and glyphosates - and in a recent study reported in the National Geographic they accumulate in water which local birds then drink. Not only that, seeds to be sown are coated with the same neonicotinoids, and can be ingested by birds. In South America migratory birds often fall foul of chemicals that are banned in the USA but are used widely in countries with few restrictions on pesticides.
- Collisions - Birds fly into windows, high tension lines, towers, windmills and other structures that are high or made of transparent materials. Estimated numbers are difficult to collate but it must run into the low millions each year.
- Cars - millions of cars zooming around means many millions of birds killed on our roads when they're hit, squashed, knocked and shocked.
- Hunting - some people like to kill birds both big and small with guns! This goes on all over the world but there are hotspots like Malta where shooting anything that flies is seen as a national sport. Again millions of birds slaughtered.
- Predation - cats - wild, feral and domestic, plus natural predators like hawks and falcons and members of the corvus family, kill millions of small birds each year.
How do we know songbirds are in decline?
Long term surveys by universities, agencies and ornithological societies are extensive and ongoing. Surveys vary in the way they're carried out but one typical example from the US Department of the Interior involves many volunteers recording songs and sightings of a particular bird over a season in pre-determined places within a given area. It could be in a park or urban space. This process is repeated and data checked against previous surveys for comparison.
Create Wild Spaces and Corridors
Many people nowadays are landscaping their gardens, patios and driveways by covering soil, grass and scrubland with paving slabs, bricks, stone and other materials.
Creating even a tiny wild space in a garden can help small songbirds survive, and if there are lots and lots of tiny wild spaces joined together - green corridors - these soon start to add up. Which is good news for the birds.
Create a Garden Attractive to Song Birds
One of the best things we could all do to help the birds is to create special spaces for them in the garden. Providing natural food, shelter and nesting space is surprisingly easy and doesn't cost the earth. Even if only a tiny space is allocated this could mean the difference between birds being there or not.
To help you decide I've compiled a list of suitable plants that are guaranteed to attract the right kind of bird to your garden.
If You Live in the USA
Shrubs and Trees -
Classic Songbird - The Nightingale
The Nightingale has a remarkable song full of all kinds of liquid wheets, crisp tucs, rapid chuck-chuck-chucks and other loud wondrous bubbling, sweet sounds. The best time to listen to a nightingale is undoubtedly in the middle of the night, when traffic noise has ended and there aren't noisy crowds around to frighten the birds away!
They love dense lowland woods, thickets and overgrown hedgerows. You may be lucky and actually spot the bird as it sings but more often than not the song is heard and the bird never seen. This is because the nightingale for most of its life is a shy, secretive creature, a lover of shadowy tangles of shrub and undergrowth.
As the wilder fringes and woodlands are tidied up, landscaped or cut down, this bird will move on to look for more favourable habitats. Little wonder it is in decline.
Talk, Write and Take Action
Talking to neighbours, local folk and farmers is a good way to elicit action and initiate positive steps towards helping songbirds. It's surprising just how interested people can become once they're sparked.
Writing letters to local councillors, agencies and support groups to arrange meetings or to point out things in the environment you live in can also arouse interest and help get things done for the benefit of all.
Cat Owners - Will a Cat Collar and Bell Help?
Cats, both domestic and feral, hunt birds by instinct. There's no getting around the fact that many birds are killed by the silent, stalking feline. As a cat lover I wouldn't want cats to be kept indoors to prevent them killing birds but I would consider a cat collar with a bell, that might act as a warning for birds.
If You Live in the UK
Trees and Shrubs
Sorbus Sheerwater, rowan family.
If You Live in Australia
Trees and Shrubs
Roundup the Herbicide
Roundup is used by millions of people as a quick and effective weedkiller. But is it as safe as the company claims? I suspect not. It is made up of glyphosates, chemicals that eventually bind with metals in the soil to produce potentially harmful effects. Roundup can also end up in ground water, especially near farms, and birds need water several times a day.
I've seen people smother their driveways and fringes with this awful stuff, instead of using their hands to pull out weeds!!
Songbirds - Conclusion
We can't stop the march of progress in the world - out there, far from our front door and gardens - but we can influence and take some control over our immediate environment to help save the songbirds from decline.
Songbirds are a symbol of beauty and fragility, they're amongst the most susceptible of birds and will vanish if they don't have the right habitats, food and nesting space. Some say they act like the coalminer's canary - giving us a warning that something is seriously wrong with the environment.
So I say create more wild spaces where possible - in gardens, parks and woodlands. Grow more wild flowers and grasses; put shrubs, bushes and trees in pots if necessary and nurture songbird friendly places, dense, entangled and free from pollution.
© 2016 Andrew Spacey