By Keith Roulston
One of the things that makes winter bearable around our place is the day-long show through the big windows of our family room, thanks to feeding the birds .
The amount of money I spend on seed to attract these birds would have amazed, or even horrified, the family I grew up with who were often pressed to the brink just keeping the mortgage and taxes paid, but it’s cheap compared to a vacation in some southern retreat. The constant arrival and departure of blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, juncos, various woodpeckers, sparrows and finches can brighten even the dullest December or January day.
I’ve been reading lately that through things like the annual Christmas bird count, experts have found our bird population is in trouble. The bird population of the U.S. and Canada is down nearly three billion birds over the last 50 years according to one study, a drop of 29 per cent. A study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan and York University found part of the problem is that neonicotinoid seed treatments suppress the appetite of song birds and perhaps delay their migration.
In case farmers think this is another case of urbanites passing off the blame to people who are working to feed them, there’s also the estimate that domestic cats, most of which live in cities, kill 200 million birds a year. Then there’s the huge death toll from birds hitting lighted windows of office towers.
Though I’m nodenier of the science of decline in bird populations, I must say my personal experience is much different than the studies. I’ve seen more variety of birds in recent years than when I was growing up. Perhaps that’s because our house is surrounded by trees and fairly close to a wooded area compared to a house far from our farm’s woodlot when I was young. Mostly, then, we saw English house sparrows and starlings.
There are birds I grew up seeing that I haven’t seen for years, like meadow larks and bobolinks, perhaps because we had plenty of hay fields on our farm and hay was harvested later then, allowing more time for nesting. Surrounded by cash crop fields now, there’s no habitat for these species. Apparently it’s a common problem because the bird-population study says there are only 30 per cent of the number of meadow larks of 50 years ago.
On the other hand, I’m amazed at the variety of wild birds I’ve been privileged to observe in recent years. I remember being stunned when I saw my first turkey vulture circling above me as I drove the tractor as a teenager. Today hardly a summer’s day goes by that one or more vultures can’t be seen wheeling above.
Until a few years ago I didn’t even know bald eagles could survive in my part of Ontario and so I was stunned when I spotted my first. The same goes for wild turkeys before they were re-introduced to the region and prospered. Another spectacularly large bird is the pileated woodpecker whose jack-hammer beak on its Woody Woodpecker-like head, can carve huge holes in the trunks of dying trees.
Perhaps because we feed them, we see far more blue jays. cardinals and woodpeckers than I ever saw when I was growing up, even though that study suggested the blue jay count is down 20 per cent.
At our place, feeding the birds doesn’t stop come spring. Though we don’t put out sunflower and other coarse seeds in summer, we supply the finch feed. That’s because we love the bright gold finches and the jewel-like indigo buntings, which I had to look up in the bird book the first time one appeared.
I hope the decline in bird numbers is either over-estimated or can be reversed. I’d hate if my grandchildren and their children were deprived of the delight of their company.◊