Every year in mid May small yellow birds (which I’ve figured out are at least two kinds of warblers) make a brief appearance in my backyard. Their bright feathers and musical song contrast with the modest browns and plane chirps of the usual backyard crowd. I always enjoy seeing them, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew they may have migrated a long way to get here, but the epic quality of their journey never really hit me until I heard bird researcher Bridget Strutchbury speak last month.
Strutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds, spoke about the double life of songbirds who winter in Central and South America and breed in the north, the huge “storms” of birds migrating north each year (flying mostly at night), and the alarming decline in the numbers of breeding birds (a drop of 30-50% since 1965).
That little yellow bird passing through my backyard has faced loss of its tropical forest winter home, been forced to survive in scrubby left-over habitat, dodged toxic agricultural pesticides (often pesticides restricted or banned in the north), then flown the long gruelling route north with fewer places to stop and city lights disrupting night-time navigation, then arrived in the north to find breeding forests and grasslands smaller and closer to cities and farms where predators such as crows, jays and feral cats lurk.
Put in this light, the fact that these little yellow birds have even made it to my yard at all is pretty amazing. I find it really distrubing to think that one spring they might not. If this happens it wont just mean the disappearance of birdsong from our neighbourhoods. Strutchbury points out: “If a species goes extinct or its population drops to very low numbers, the ecological roles that it played in nature are lost. Some species are so specialized that their services can no be replaced by other animals, so their loss creates a ripple effect. . . . Their jobs as pollinators, fruit-eaters, insect-eaters, scavengers and nutrient recyclers will not get done, and this will disrupt ecosystems and affect everyone on the planet.”
Things we can do to help save the songbirds:
– drink shade-grown coffee
– buy organic produce (especially from Latin America)
– create backyard habitats
– keep lawns pesticide-free
– turn city lights out at night
– keep cats indoors
– buy recycled paper products
– buy wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council
– pressure companies manufacturing pesticides to meet international standards