ON THE SCENE: We are losing birds in the Adirondacks

Eastern meadowlark (Photo provided)

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced more than 20 extinctions — including 11 birds, eight freshwater mussels, two fish, a bat and a plant — and a million more species are at risk.

The cause is a result of human activities such as the draining and paving over wetlands, logging, damming rivers, pesticides, the growing amount of pollution in our waterways, air and soil, and the rise in temperatures caused by climate change.

As if a harbinger of the announcement to come, three days earlier at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, local birder and Keene resident John Thaxton shared his experience and fears about birds’ decline in our region. Thaxton, then an editor and writer based in New York, was invited to the Adirondacks about 35 years ago by a publisher interested in doing a book about Adirondack bed and breakfasts. They came, stayed at the Barkeater, climbed a couple of high peaks, and fell in love with the region.

Thaxton and his wife had a place in the city and Long Island, where he loved birding, but the Adirondacks offered an escape and a greater diversity of birds. So, they bought some land, built a cabin, and came up summers and when they could. They’ve now lived here full time for about 16 years.

“One of the things that hit me like a punch in the mouth was this spring, for the first time in 35 years, we did not have black-throated blue, black-throated green, blackburnian, yellow-throated, and ovenbird warblers in the yard,” said Thaxton. “They have been there every spring except this one. It mirrors what I am hearing from birders all over the country that the numbers are just plummeting. There doesn’t seem to be any remedies. We could put up more bird feeders; that might help, but the birds are just declining.”

Larry Master (Photo provided)

Thaxton said that a study by Cornell and the Smithsonian found that since 1970 there have been three billion fewer birds in North America. He said wherever he looks, there are fewer birds. He said crows and ravens seem to be doing OK, as are waterfowl, ducks, geese and raptors. Grassland birds, like sparrows and warblers, are in steep decline.

“The birds that are taking the biggest hit are the grassland birds,” said Thaxton. “Beautiful birds that everybody loves are down 90% — 90%. What’s surprising me most is that their steep decline is happening so fast. I expected it to be gradual. I knew it was coming. But for all those birds to vanish from my yard at the same time is very chilling. I used to wake up with birds singing; it was cool. They don’t sing anymore. It’s depressing.”

According to Larry Master of Keene, former chief zoologist for NatureServe, the decline in birds is caused by climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and the increasing hazards of migration.

“For an example, in the tropics, the wintering ground for many of our summer birds, there is just an enormous amount of habitat loss,” said Master. “I’m just shocked every time I go down there now. Costa Rica, Columbia, and Venezuela used to be forested but now are mostly denuded. Another is insect loss. When we drove around 30 or 40 years ago, our windshields would be a mess in the summer. Now it’s minimal. Ninety-five percent of our birds feed insects to their young. Caterpillars are an essential food. That loss impacts the survivability of our birds.”

How significant is the insect loss? Research published in the online journal PLOS One in 2017 reveals the biomass of flying insects in 63 protected areas declined over 75% in just 27 years. The American Bird Conservancy reports that the lineup of culprits includes climate change, habitat loss, and pesticides. Especially nasty are neonicotinoids, long-term nicotine-based persistent pesticides that drift from farmlands into other fields and get into our water supplies and soil. Neonicotinoids have dramatically reduced the number of wild bees, honey bees, and butterflies. A study in Ohio identified a 33% reduction in butterflies of the past 20 years.

John Thaxton (Photo provided)

If you combine the total acreage of California, New York, and Texas, that’s the amount of grassland that’s been converted to agriculture in the U.S.; land that’s regularly treated with pesticides to control insects. Added to that, roads and parking lots have paved over 52 million square miles of land, another tremendous loss of aviation habitat. Domesticated cats kill 2.4 billion wild birds a year in North America. They have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Over a billion birds die from crashing into windows each year, and ingesting plastic results in an annual bird loss of over one million.

Back at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, Thaxton was hit with a chorus of what can we do questions.

Lorraine Duval asked if there were any pollinator plants people could have in our gardens that would attract and feed birds, like hummingbirds or the insects that birds eat. Another asked if ticks were a threat to birds. Katharine Preston raised the importance of addressing climate change, which has resulted in changes to the timing of seasons, widespread droughts, and forest fires, among others that impact birds.

“The first thing people can do is to lobby congress to do something about climate change,” said Master. “The Build Back Better plan will do more to address climate change than anything that’s been done before. Lobby to end the use of neonicotinoids. Grow pollinator plants. Incorporate a more climate-friendly lifestyle. Drive electric or hybrid cars.”

“Our children’s and our grandchildren’s future is in our hands,” said Preston. “There is no question in my mind that we can mitigate the problem. Everything we can do can mitigate the effects on the birds, on other people throughout the world, and the effects on the Adirondacks that we all love.”

“Even though I feel very hopeless,” said Henrietta Jordan. “I can’t give up. I can’t stop. To stop is to surrender.”

Some resources for actions people can take are:

– Cornell Lab of Ornithology: www.birds.cornell.edu/home/seven-simple-actions-to-help-birds

– American Bird Conservancy: https://abcbirds.org/top-ways-you-can-help-birds

– Audubon Society: www.audubon.org/conservation/project/grassland-birds

– New York Grassland Bird Trust: www.grasslandbirdtrust.org.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)