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An Expose in the Struggle of Songbird Populations

Updated on August 3, 2015
Male Painted Bunting
Male Painted Bunting | Source

Where Do Most Birds Go in the Winter?

It would confound you to learn that neotropical migrants lead remarkable lives outside the ones that we know here in the United States. Some of them travel two thousand miles to spend the spring and summer with us, and after a grueling flight, they must hurry to find a mate, build nests, lay eggs, raise young, get them into shape to return to winter habitat, AND make that flight to their winter homes.

Then they must get their old real estate back into shape, battle food sources that could be laden with pesticides, and compete for the essentials of life, just like they did with us. However, the youngsters that returned with their parents to their tropical climes won’t have it that easy. They must settle for the scrublands that are left over, and if they are lucky, they will be able to thrive and stay healthy enough to return to us once more. Nearly half of the previous year’s crop don’t survive.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher | Source

What is Migration?

To make matters worse, tropical forests and grasslands are being cleared more rapidly now than ever before to feed the world. Migrants have to pick and choose where they’ll live, and do their best to circumvent cities, farms, and great expanses of urban sprawl permeated with small fragmented forests. And that I only so they will be able to survive and return to what we call home in the US.

Migration occurs on a continental sale in April and May, then again in August and September. It isn’t just a few birds here and there, it is a raging, roiling storm, not for the faint of heart. When that physical alarm is triggered for birds, there is nothing more important, life takes on no other meaning for them, other than it is time to GO. NOW.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo | Source

What Are Some Problems Related to Migration?

Fortunately, most of these flights for songbirds are during the night, when predators are fast asleep, with visions of the next meal dancing in their heads, and it won’t include many of these songbirds. Decades ago, during the 1950s and 1960s, double the birds that were migrating caused a real show, if one was awake during the wee hours. Not that you can’t see and hear them now, especially during a full moon, but now it is no comparison. There are less birds now than we had then.

Many elements take a toll on songbirds. With the rise in population between the 1950s and now, there are many more highrises to house these people, including where they work. Granted the Twin Towers that used to be in New York City up until 2011, are a thing of the past. These tall buildings in the dark cannot be seen by birds, who fly at fairly high altitudes at cruising speeds of approximately fifty miles per hour. If those buildings are in the path of those birds, the buildings win.

Large cities like Toronto and a few others have passed laws since then to turn off their lights at night, which draws birds to them, the proverbial, “light at the end of the tunnel.” Birds still die as a result of what is in their paths, but things are slowly improving. The more buildings that have their lights off during the times of spring and fall migrations, the more birds will survive.

Were You Aware of the Plight of Songbirds?

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Birds on Radar, an 11- to 18-hour journey
Birds on Radar, an 11- to 18-hour journey

A Storm of Angels

Fallouts around the Gulf of Mexico, in the area of Texas and Louisiana, can intensify a birder’s experience. If a storm, or a low pressure system hits while birds are in transit and over the six hundred mile expanse of water, it can be extremely dangerous to their lives. Either it can push them onto land or they could be lucky enough to ride out a storm on an oil platform. There are thousands of these oil rig platforms, both manned and unmanned. It is a slim chance that birds will make it to the safety of these small oases, but it does happen. Then when the weather clears, they can either make it to the coast, or if they have enough fat reserves, they can make it twenty or thirty miles inland where there chances are much greater for quiet cover and large amounts of food resources.

This inevitable storm of birds will be missed by so many that don’t even realize that it occurs twice a year. Serious birders call this time a storm of angels, and it was seen on the old radar blips back in the 1940s, even during World War II, as an unexplained mystery. For the past ten years or thereabouts, this radar has been made available to ornithologists in order to track birds, entomologists so they can track hordes of beetles, locusts, and grasshoppers, and for those of us so inclined, around sunset and throughout the night, the radar screens will show millions of birds enroute to their spring and summer residences. Every night for approximately two weeks, as the first wave of birds leave in order to head north or south, they will be replaced by another wonderful, and breathtaking scene filled with more winged jewels.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Nestlings
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Nestlings | Source

Solutions Are Needed

No matter where they all live, so many of the same hazards plague them, be it global warming due to breaches in the ozone layer, the pesticides sprayed on crops from the United States through South America, or the millions of feral cats just waiting to grab a weak bird to hone its hunting skills, not necessarily feed itself. The cat populations grow every year and require mandatory trap, neuter, spay and release programs.

The protein snacks that birds partake in on those farms that have been sprayed with pesticides risk not only death, but even worse, a life filled with neurological difficulties. They are not fit to breed in this condition, so bird populations suffer right from the start.

Realistically, dead birds should be replaced by new life. The Christmas Bird Count and other census data are showing very serious declines. Couple that with cowbird parasitism, lack of habitat, and it shows itself in species like warblers, thrushes, bobolinks, and meadowlarks, just to name a few.

Remember that once our birds are gone, life is literally over, and that is not said in jest. Plants need to be pollinated, and leaf-eating and –destroying insects, as well as seed-eating insects require control measures, which is one of the primary purposes of the avian world in a delicate, natural balance. This is nothing new, as it has been occurring for millenia, and we continue to clear cut forests, plow under grasslands, enlarge our cities, and dump millions of pounds of pesticides on land just to make apples look pretty. Remember how they paved paradise and put up a parking lot?

Juvenile Eastern Phoebe
Juvenile Eastern Phoebe | Source

Young Songbirds Have Great Challenges

Then to make matters even worse, when birds raise their respective families, some of them up to three clutches in a season due to appropriate weather, they have to hurry up to get them healthy enough to fly to the parents’ homes, some a thousand miles away or more. The adults usually leave the breeding grounds in the United States first in the fall, as they are the first to arrive, and their biological clocks tell them to do so. When the parents arrive at their wintering destination, and get settled in prime areas with good shelter and plenty of food, the youngsters have to take what is left over.

Those wanderers, or unsettled replacements, were there for the first time, so they have trouble getting a territory. If scrub habitat, which is the lowest of the low for most birds, is full, then their survival rate will be very low. This is another contributing factor on why only half of the young birds survive migrations. Birds get stressed, which will show in physical ways, especially through the blood. If they are constantly short of food, harassed by older birds, have no real place to live, and are constantly under threat of predation, they will not thrive. Where a bird spends its time in the tropics will have a definite effect on its food supply and body condition, as well as its ability to migrate and breed.

Male Orchard Oriole
Male Orchard Oriole | Source

Birds Provide Ecological Balance

Surprisingly, a number of southern migrants will switch from a summer diet of insects and other protein to a winter diet of fruit, which includes our Eastern Kingbird and several vireos. These birds play a very large part on seed dispersal in the tropical ecosystems, and can reseed a patch where a tree is nearly extinct.

Fruit eaters help heal degraded forest land due to seed dispersal, and do a much better job than humans. Where they perch is where they will drop much needed seeds. The service is also ecologically better and cheaper than waiting for nursery stock. Most plants and trees use birds as active pollinators, especially hummingbirds and orioles.

Again, birds are perfect in the tropics for leaf eating insects, especially for fruit and coffee plantings. During the wet season, when insects are at their highest numbers, it is a win-win situation for the birds, the crops, and the cash flow for the small farmer. The best thing that you can do to help sustain birds is to purchase shade grown coffee for these very reasons, and keep our neotropical migrants in the proper habitat, for everyone’s sake.

Male Brown-headed Cowbird
Male Brown-headed Cowbird | Source

Cowbird Parasitism

Birds have enough trouble trying to keep themselves and their nestlings secure from predators without cowbird parasitism on top of that. I was aware of four pairs in my own area that fluctuated between a couple of fragmented riparian forests. Cowbirds, another neotropical migrant, don’t have their own nests and young, dropping their eggs in the nests of some birds that are completely unsuspecting. The young cowbirds wear parents ragged constantly calling for food and the natural nestlings die due to lack of food. Some birds end up with one of their own nestlings and a cowbird, instead of the three or four that they could have had. They have invaded all but the largest tracts of forests and parasitize more than a hundred species. They try to be near agricultural areas where they can eat plentiful supplies of grains and seeds. Have they contributed to the loss of birds? They have to some degree, especially with Ovenbirds and Wood Thrush, but humanity is by far the worst parasite in birds’ struggle for life.

Education is the Key to Life

Fortunately, with a lot of press about birds losing their numbers, poaching, and illegal hunting coming to the forefront, people are becoming more educated on the problems of birds. Many activists are working hard with petitions, and organizations such as Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy are helping to get information out to the public at large.

For those of you that have gotten on the bandwagon, thanks are heartfelt. Save a bird today!

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    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 21 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Sheila, but my main objective is to et the word out. Please share this to help show the world what is happening and how we can combat it. Many are helping through signing petitions, but it requires more people to be in the know to really help change things. The internet has given us a lot of power, so we must use it to our advantage. Let governments know that we will no longer idly stand by while we do their bidding. We can make issues go global very quickly.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 21 months ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Wonderful hub! I knew of much of the difficulties of birds during migration, but I did not know about the "Storm of Angels", this is really quite awesome. We all need to do what we can to help our little feathered friends. Again, you pictures are just awesome!

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Chantelle. I've written a few other things regarding birds and the environment that you might find of interest. There are also a few more on the burner, so stay tuned.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 22 months ago from Chicago

      I am new to birding and had no idea this was a problem. Although when i think about it, other species all over the world are in jeopardy so why should birds be immune. I really enjoyed your article.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Dave! Agriculture is a huge problem in the world, so instead of addressing that by growing plants out instead of UP, more forest is being taken away. Sadly, it removes valuable ecosystem, and runoff is invading our waterways, making water plants go wild. That in turn, removes staple food for other animals that gets crowded out. We are on a path to disrupting our lives even more in view of our own carelessness.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 22 months ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi, Deb, excellent article about the problems facing problems in your part of the world. Here in the UK we have been suffering declines in many songbirds especially farmland birds for a long time now, Insecticides and pesticides coupled with intensive farming practices being indeed the main cause. Thank you for highlighting this issue it is one we all need to be aware of. Excellent photographs as usual. Voted up interesting and useful

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 22 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, thumbi! It is going to be hard to eradicate pesticides, as it is encouraged if a large farmer wants to make money, especially with the corporate giants, Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, etc. It makes it difficult for the small farmer. Organic food is so much healthier, and people's lives stand a much better chance. Thanks for reading!

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 22 months ago from India

      Great article. Your article will create awareness about why the bird population is coming down. Use of pesticides is not only a problem in US, it is very much there in India as well. Now slowly people are getting aware and they are trying to cultivate organic vegetables at least at their own houses

      Thanks for sharing

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      I hope so, too, Meldz. The more people that we all tell, the more that will know about it. Thanks for your support

    • profile image

      ignugent17 23 months ago

      Great information. It is sad to know that there are less birds now. I do hope this hub will help others to be aware of the importance of these birds.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Mel! Our beautiful birds are such amazing creatures. It floors me to hear such a loud voice come from a tiny body. A Yellow-rumped Warbler is a migrant, too, all the warblers are.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      I am amazed by the secret rites of songbird migration. I am thrilled to see the Yellow-rumped Warblers and even the House Wrens that come to my yard in different times of the year. Perhaps they don't travel as far as the neotropical migrants do, but it is a perilous journey all the same. I love that Painted Bunting. I would seriously consider selling my firstborn into slavery just to see one. Great hub!

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Alicia! Thanks much for your support and always being there. These birds must be able to thrive in the proper environment, and we can all help.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Chris! I am trying so hard to KEEP from losing these birds. It is a goal and a mission to keep our ecosystem alive or none of us will live to tell about it. It is not too late yet, but we must learn how to say, "no" to corporations. Are we ready?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing the information and raising awareness about these problems, Deb. This is another important hub. I love the opening photo and the photo of the nestlings!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 23 months ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Awesome article, Deb. It gives new meaning to the words, "The day the music died." But it is much more than just their songs we will miss if we lose too many songbirds. Thanks for the information.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, Bronwen, if not for the sake of the wildlife, for the balance that each ecosystem provides everything else at large. People don't realize the long term implications when we remove one item from nature, it has to rebalance itself. One day, it just won't be able to do it, and everything will go by the wayside. We must be careful with technology, and carefully weigh what those implications are and can be before we agree to it.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 23 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Beautiful photographs and a great article. If we don't care for our birds and other wildlife they will go the way of other extinct species and what a loss that will be. It's so important that we stop encroaching on our environment and bushland.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Glad to hear that, Sha. The birds like to take a dip when it is hot, and you'll be remembered for that. They might even bring a family member or two.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 23 months ago from Central Florida

      I keep my birdbath full, too Deb.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Lela, it is hard to not feed and have the birds go without, but to be honest, this is a bountiful year for seeds and fruit, since there has been so much rain. If you don't feed now, it will not be an issue. Do feed during spring and fall migrations. Baby season is going to be over soon, but like I say, it is a moot point this year. Cowbirds will be heading south with the rest of the neotropical migrants, so feed well over the winter when there is snow and ice on the ground. Fermented fruits will be good for the cardinals, sparrows, waxwings, etc. Thanks for all that you do, and enjoy your birds.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Oh, yes, Perspy, they are pretty small, but they have a huge voice, like most small birds do. Thanks for being there, and may your birds be plentiful.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Sha, thanks for being there for the birds. Now that you know songbirds' struggles, you can truly be there for them, wishing them well on their way. A little food and water for wayward travelers is much appreciated, too. Thanks for being a good steward and great emissary.

    • CreatePerfection profile image

      CreatePerfection 23 months ago from Beautiful Colorado

      Hi aviannovice,

      As you know, we have been inundated by cowbirds lately. I have noticed that the smaller birds like finches are staying away while the huge and growing flock of cowbirds have been nearby. I make an effort to keep our songbird feeder full, but it has become a challenge keeping it available for the smaller birds because of the cowbirds and grackles. Thank you for this very informative article.

      Lela

    • profile image

      Perspycacious 23 months ago

      Thanks for the photo of the bunting. I always visualized them as being a larger bird like a partridge.

      Another win for the birds, courtesy of the not so novice aviannovice.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 23 months ago from Central Florida

      Deb, I had no idea the little guys have such a hard time. I can't imagine flying thousands of miles twice a year!

      Once again, you've provided us with information we might not otherwise be aware of. Our birds are such an integral part of the food chain. I didn't realize the extent of their role until reading this.

      I'm relieved to know my coffee buying habits are helping the avian population and the planet in general. I only buy shade grown coffee.

    • aviannovice profile image
      Author

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Larry! As an ornithologist, I must know my specific field(heron family), as well as the problems affecting birds in order to do an effective job. I am reaching and broadening myself as much as I can to encompass as much as possible. It is a lot of work, and if I can reach the masses in a expedient way, I am doing my job. Thanks for reading, and here's to protecting our ecosystem--together.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thank you, Suhail! We are on our way to do what is right.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

      Always educational. I have to confess I was ignorant about the plight of the migratory songbird before this.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 23 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Good news - Botswana has banned animal hunting altogether.

    • aviannovice profile image
      Author

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Billy, as an ornithologist and the fact that I know about the problem, it is my duty to inform the public at large. There's so much more that meets the eye, and nature is such a delicate balance. Pluck one string incorrectly or allow it to go out of tune, and the entire song is wrong.

    • aviannovice profile image
      Author

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Rebecca! This is really only the frosting on the cake. There are a few more items that I could add, but I had to stop. Perhaps I shall continue at a later date.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 23 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I was aware but I wonder what percentage of the population is....this is such an important topic, and it's so important that writers like you keep bringing awareness to it. Bravo my friend.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 23 months ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      The songbirds have problems that I was not aware of as they migrate. Interesting read, and the photos are fascinating!

    • aviannovice profile image
      Author

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Frank! These are the songbirds that appeared this year, since we had such a great start this year. Even last year contributed. Lots of rain begets lots of fruits and seeds, so more birds are attracted. My riparian forests on the edges of the lake are filled, and baby season is still flowing at a rapid clip.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks for the added info, Buildreps. I will file that away, and use it in another reference work. Any book that you can refer me to regarding European practices and the struggle for birds, would be very useful in my work.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Faith Reaper! Perhaps you can really rekindle a wonder sport---yes, SPORT. Birdwatching is THE most popular sport in this country, as nearly everyone can participate to some degree. Housebound people have been made mobile and more informed just with one feeder, as long as someone else is able to fill it. Glad that you got so much out of the article. There is so much more that I will be telling at a later time. Thanks for reading, as well as your continued support.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Suhail! The more of us that reach out and write articles to keep people informed, the better that it is for nature. Not everyone will pick up a book, but my short column at Boomer Lake sure helps. I have NEVER seen this many people at the lake. Cecil has raised a LOT of awareness, so much so, that it really is getting to be a viral item. Supposedly someone else is involved, too, killing the brother lion.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, whonu. Once I got started on this, I just couldn't stop.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 23 months ago from Shelton

      thank you so much for this educational piece.. I did actually learned something new.. the photos you took.. priceless :)

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 23 months ago from Europe

      In France in the 50s and 60s, even up to the 70s, they liked to catch these little songbirds in nets to roast them afterwards on the barbecue. Bestial behaviour. It's now already a few decades forbidden, but the damage's already done. That was on top all the challenges the little birds had to cope with.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 23 months ago from southern USA

      Wow, thank you for sharing about the plight of the songbirds. I did not realize they will run into buildings with lights on! You have written a most comprehensive hub here on this subject. I learned a great deal.

      Your photos are always breathtaking and beautiful. I have a special place in my heart for songbirds, and I guess it is because my precious mother loved them so. I used to know of so many variety of birds growing up as my mother had fabulous books about birds.

      Great hub! Up and more and away

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 23 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Very informative hub indeed! I liked the way you explained migration and parasitism. Not many people know about the negative impacts in these two areas.

      Btw, the rate at which we are losing our forest cover is appalling. I am not sure how are we going to keep it at a sustainable level. There is light at the end of the tunnel though. More and more people are talking about conservation and creating corridors of wild population rather than enclaves like the national parks.

      Cecil the lion tragedy has also raised conservation issues.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 23 months ago from United States

      Nice work my friend and beautiful photos. whonu

    • aviannovice profile image
      Author

      Deb Hirt 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Jackie! Thanks for the vote of confidence. There are great challenges in the world of ornithology, which is part of the reason why my interest was piqued.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 23 months ago from The Beautiful South

      Oh that brown headed cowbird is so beautiful. I am a real sucker for spread wings; don't know if there is anything more beautiful! That migration is atrocious isn't it? Somewhat like the butterflies that I studied and wrote about but I had no idea birds could fly into buildings! That is just awful.

      Hopefully the population will change somewhat so that there is still room for our birds.

      If anyone can come up with a plan I bet it would be you Deb!

      ^+

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