My First Great Backyard Bird Count, Part 2: The Count

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

I registered for the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) in early January. (See previous blog entry to find out how.) My materials arrived in early February, about two weeks ahead of the count. They included a handbook, an identification poster, a tally sheet, a calendar, and instructions. (See photo below.) They also included my registration number.


I immediately created an account on the Project Feederwatch website with my registration number. That number will remain with me for all future GBBGs. Kind of like a driver’s license, but without the terrible photo.

As the GBBC approached, my family sprang into action. My teenage daughter left the country, my teenage son made plans with friends, and my husband suddenly came up with a work commitment. I’d be on my own. But no matter: I’d have my handy chart with me, plus our household field guides and Merlin Bird ID.

It took me a little while to get used to the protocol for counting. To prevent repeatedly counting the same individual bird, you’re supposed to report the greatest number of birds of the same species that you see at your feeder at the same time. Doing this makes it impossible for you to report the same individual more than once if it keeps flying away and coming back.

So here’s what my tally sheet looked like. The first photo shows my count early on the first day. The second photo shows my count at the end.

Tally sheet early Saturday

Tally sheet early Saturday

You’ll note that, in addition to the species counts, there are places at left to indicate the amount of time I spent and the weather, and at bottom to record any interesting interactions I saw.

Tally sheet late Sunday

Tally sheet late Sunday

On Saturday, I watched the feeders for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 in the afternoon. I sat at the dining room table with a cup of tea and the tally sheet, the chart, the field guides, and Merlin Bird ID. I wished my family were home so I could ignore them for the sake of science.

When I was finished, I logged in to the Project Feederwatch website and logged my data. And I was DONE. Having submitted my data electronically, I did not need to mail in my tally sheet.

So that was it! I had contributed to science by sipping a cup of tea at my dining room table while watching bird feeders. You think I could apply for a grant to do this full time?

When Land Changes, Wetlands Provide for Insectivores

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin' Birds. 

As human population increases, we need more food. To increase food production, we often claim wild grassland and make it into farmland, which means treating it with pesticides, fertilizers, or both. When we treat the land, insect populations diminish and become less diverse, which affects all animals that feed on those insects—including birds. In fact, aerial insectivores—birds that hunt for insects on the wing—are declining across North America. A forthcoming study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes a closer look at precisely how Tree Swallows are affected by agricultural practices. 

In 2012 and 2013, Chantel Michelson, Robert Clark, and Christy Morrissey—all researchers at the University of Saskatchewan—monitored Tree Swallow nest boxes at agricultural and grassland sites. To find out what the birds were eating, they collected blood samples and measured isotope ratios. (Measuring certain chemical elements in tissues is an established way to glean diet data.) Tree Swallows usually eat aquatic insects. Since water receives pesticide runoff, the researchers expected that the swallows living near cropland would be forced to eat more land-based insects than the swallows living near wild grassland.

What the researchers found surprised them. The Tree Swallows at both locations ate more aquatic insects than expected. In fact, in 2012 the birds at agricultural sites ate more aquatic insects than the birds at the wild sites. In other words, even though the agricultural sites had been treated for farming, the swallows still preferred the insects there to the insects living by the water. The researchers think this might mean that wetlands provide some cushion for birds against changes brought about by farming.

One other surprising finding: The swallows living at agricultural sites weighed less than the swallows living in wild grassland. They were healthy, just smaller, which might mean they had a harder time finding food. But in both locations, adult swallows seemed to rely on aquatic insects for themselves and their young, illustrating the importance of wetlands for bird survival.

The Cuckoos are Coming: Alaskan Birds, Wise Up!

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds. 

As you may know, the Common Cuckoo and Oriental Cuckoo are brood parasites. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving their chicks to be raised by the unsuspecting foster parents. A cuckoo chick in the nest reduces the likelihood that the original chicks will survive, because female cuckoos time their egg-laying so that their chicks hatch first...and then shove the other eggs out of the nest. 

In areas where brood parasites are common, host species often develop coping strategies. Some birds hide their nests, or nest at different times. Some attack the brood parasite before she lays her egg or abandon the nest once she's laid it. Others pierce the parasite's egg and toss it out of the nest.

But what about birds that live where brood parasites aren't common? A new study from the University of Illinois and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville shows that an invasion of cuckoos from eastern Russia might cause significant losses among Alaskan birds. Professors Mark Hauber and Vladimir Dinets led the study to learn what Alaskan birds do—or don't—know about coping with brood parasites.

Common Cuckoos and Oriental Cuckoos are occasionally sighted in Alaska. Most likely, they've gotten there from Beringia in eastern Russia. While there isn't solid evidence that cuckoos are breeding in Alaska, Hauber says "it's likely already occurring."

Researchers put two types of fake eggs into the nests of more than two dozen songbird species in both Siberia and Alaska. (The fake eggs resembled varieties of cuckoo eggs.) Common Cuckoos and Oriental Cuckoos have advanced into Siberia and now breed near the Bering Strait; in comparison, Alaska is new territory. The researchers made sure to test each nest with each kind of egg. After the usual losses from predation, they had data from 62 nests of 27 bird species. 

Fourteen out of 22 Siberian nesting pairs rejected the fake eggs, but only a single one of the 96 Alaskan pairs rejected the fakes. Hauber suspects this result indicates that Siberian songbirds have encountered cuckoos long enough to develop coping behaviors, but he's worried about Alaskan songbirds. "The North American hosts have no defenses against invading cuckoos. They will be parasitized."

We hope that future ornithologists will follow up to find out how the Alaskan songbird population distribution has changed—and whether any of them have wised up about cuckoos. 

Want to see the original article? Click here. 



Birds, Like People, Suffer from Loud Noise

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that birds respond like humans do when exposed to constant loud noise. Researchers found that adults and nestlings of three species in the wild showed signs of chronic stress caused by human noise pollution. 

Most birds exposed to constant loud noise will simply leave an area; this study looked at what happens to the birds that stay. Lead author Nathan Kleist conducted the research while a Ph.D student in evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, along with co-author Rob Guralnick, associate curator of biodiversity informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The research team, led by Kleist, set up 240 nesting boxes at three specific distances from gas compressors on property in New Mexico. The team tested levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in three species: Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. The researchers found that the louder the noise from the gas compressors, the lower the birds’ baseline corticosterone levels in all three species.

Christopher Lowry, study co-author and stress physiologist at CU Boulder, explains: Although it seems odd that the corticosteroid levels would be low, lab studies of chronic stress in humans have shown that low corticosterone can signal stress so intense that the body has to reduce baseline levels of the hormone to protect itself (so that there's room for it to shoot up if needed). In fact, when these birds experienced sudden stress, their corticosteroid shot up high and came down only very slowly, like it does in chronically stressed humans.

In the noisiest environments—the ones closest to the compressors—nestlings had smaller body size and reduced feather development. In Western Bluebirds, the species that showed the greatest noise tolerance, fewer eggs hatched than expected.

“These birds can’t escape this noise," says Guralnick. "It’s persistent, and it completely screws up their ability to get cues from the environment." For example, adults rearing chicks can't tell whether it's safe to leave the nest for food. Guralnick explains, "Just as constant stress tends to degrade many aspects of a person’s health, this ultimately has a whole cascade of effects on their physiological health and fitness.” 

Since noise at natural gas fields is not unusually loud compared with human noise in many other parts of the country, this study has implications for protecting wildlife and even human health. The researchers suspect that if other species react the way these species did, bird populations could decline if we humans become noisier.

“This study shows that noise pollution reduces animal habitat and directly influences their fitness and ultimately their numbers,” Guralnick said. “By doing so, it makes it harder for animals to survive. Taken together, that’s a pretty damning picture of what human-made noise can do to natural populations of animals.”

Whose Fault is the European Starling?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

If you live in North America and you love the European Starling, most folks say you can credit Eugene Shieffelin. If you hate the European Starling, they say you can blame the same guy. It's Shieffelin who is largely credited with introducing 60 starlings to New York City's Central Park in the year 1890 and another 40 in 1891. As we all know, they thrived. And thrived. Today, they number around 200 million in North America, with a range all across the continent, and are considered one of the most invasive species on the planet. So if you love them, you can thank Mr. Shieffelin for the huge flocks of noisy, speckled black birds.

Shieffelin didn't act alone, however. He belonged to the American Acclimatization Society, an organization founded in New York City in 1871 whose goal was to introduce to North America useful species from other countries. In retrospect, we 21st-century types think "useful" was defined rather loosely. After all, the starling isn't especially useful—unless, as is rumored about Shieffelin, you have such a thing for the birds of Shakespeare that you want them all to live right near you. (There actually is not much evidence for this popular story.)

So how did the American Acclimatization Society come to be? Well, for that we can blame the Société zoologique d'acclimatation, founded in Paris in 1854 by naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He encouraged the French government to import and breed species that would help feed France and control pests. He encouraged other countries to start similar chapters. 

By 1877, the American Acclimatization Society was going strong, and Shieffelin, a drug manufacturer from the Bronx, was its chairman. We imagine he must have thought, "How pretty those starlings are! How intelligent and entertaining! What harm could they do?" What harm indeed! They have crowded out countless native North American bird species, interfered with agriculture, and even been a primary cause of airplane bird strikes. 

Some bad ideas that seem fun at the time are pretty harmless, such as shaving half your beard or adding extra hot pepper to your chili. But importing non-native species? Not harmless. So let's enjoy European Starlings, but let's also try to educate humankind about invasive species so we don't make such mistakes in the future. The fault? Quite simply, it's ours. 


Bird Food Source Alert: Declining Insects

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

In recent years, we've seen well-documented declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and other insects that attract a lot of attention. But we haven't really noticed the moths, beetles, and other insects that flitter and crawl through our everyday life. Birds, however, probably notice their decline a lot, since they're a major food source. 

A recent story in the journal Science documents a new set of data gathered mostly by amateur entomologists in western Europe. These folks have tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves since the 1980s, and the news is not good.

This group of amateurs, named the Krefeld Entomological Society (after their location in Germany) has seen the insect catches in their traps fluctuate every year. This is normal. But in 2013, they noticed that one of their longest-running sites showed a decline by mass of almost 80%. The numbers were just as low in 2014. In fact, the group found dramatic declines across more than a dozen other sites, even in reserves where plant diversity and abundance had improved. 

The group has installed more traps each year since 2013. They've also begun working with university-based researchers to look for correlations with weather, changes in vegetation, and other factors. Unfortunately, no simple cause for the decline has yet emerged.

If you don't like bugs, you're probably asking, "Why does this research matter?" The answer is that other creatures eat insects—such as birds. Dave Goulson, an ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, explains, "If you're an insect-eating bird living in that area, four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century." No matter what your opinion of bugs, this is important news.

No one knows what this research in western Europe means for insects elsewhere. But we at Talkin' Birds think that anything that affects the food chain for birds anywhere is worth investigating for the good of us all. 

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

A male hoverfly on a Bermuda Buttercup. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons; author: Alvesgaspar.)

Barn Owls: The Secret to Great California Wine

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Before you get worried, we'd like you to know that no owls are harmed in the making of fine California wines. In fact, they get paid well — in rodents. 

Rodents like to eat grape vines, and Barn Owls like to eat rodents. Many Napa Valley wineries control rodents by putting up nest boxes to establish Barn Owl populations. Researcher Sara Kross from the University of California Davis says that more than 99% of prey items in barn owls’ diets on the farms she studied were agricultural pests — mice, voles, and pocket gophers. Fewer of these pests means easier growing for grapevines.

Welcoming Barn Owls allows wineries to reduce or eliminate the use of rodent poisons. It's important to note that, if poisons must be used, they should be used with care, since an owl that eats a poisoned critter will ingest the poison, too.  

Intrigued? You can read more about Kross's research here, including where to get nest boxes of your own. 

Wildlife Biologist Carrie Wendt says, "When it comes to wine making, owls are part of the whole process, because they’re rodent-devouring machines."

Wildlife Biologist Carrie Wendt says, "When it comes to wine making, owls are part of the whole process, because they’re rodent-devouring machines."

Quiet, Please: How Human Noise Affects Wild Places

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

People better at birding by ear than by eye can find it maddening to try to hear songs and calls over traffic noise. We wait for the bird to raise its voice once the rattling trucks have passed--only to discover that someone has fired up a leafblower nearby, drowning out everything the way radio static drowns out music.

As annoying as unwanted human noise is to us, it's devastating to other creatures. For example: if birds can't hear one another, they can't alert one another to approaching danger or attractive mates or good food sources. Prey animals can't hear predators in a noisy environment, which means more of them get eaten, affecting the ecological balance. Human noise pollution affects plant reproduction by scaring away birds that help distribute seeds, according to a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

Rachel Buxton, an acoustic ecologist at Colorado State University, succinctly explains the essential problem with noise: “It really doesn’t have any boundaries.” Buxton and her colleagues reported recently in the journal Science that noise from humans at least doubles the background sound levels in most protected areas in the United States. “When we think about wilderness, we think about...going to see outstanding scenery,” says co-author Megan McKenna. “We really should think about soundscapes, too.”

Buxton and McKenna and their team used a model for predicting noise based on sound measurements taken all over the country by the National Park Service. Individual scientists hiked in to more than 400 listening stations to set up the equipment, each of which included a sound level meter and a recorder. Each recorder ran for 30 days, collecting every sound. The recordings were then analyzed by acoustic specialists. The researchers then constructed a model for predicting noise by figuring out which sounds were associated with geographic features such as elevation, annual rainfall, proximity to cities, highways and flight paths. By subtracting out natural sound sources, the scientists estimated the amount of noise pollution for each specific wilderness area.

The findings were mixed. Protected areas did show much lower levels of human-caused sound than the "buffer zones” of unprotected land near them, suggesting that these buffer zones really do insulate parks. But 63 percent of the protected areas showed an increase in sound levels of at least three decibels caused by noise pollution. Since decibels are logarithmic, three decibels indicates a doubling of background noise. More than a fifth of protected areas experienced 10 extra decibels of human noise. Sadly, the majority of areas considered “critical habitat” for endangered species were among the regions that dealt with the worst noise.

McKenna said that parks are taking steps to reduce human sounds, such as implementing shuttle systems to reduce the number of cars and posting library-style “quiet” signs. But the problem of pervasive traffic sound—all those low-frequency rumbles from ground and air—is not so easily solved. Buxton suggests that parks look into “quiet pavement” to muffle the sounds of rolling tires and establish noise corridors to align airplane flight paths with highways.

We here are Talkin' Birds plan to drive as little as possible in protected areas, opting instead for quieter transportation such as foot and bicycle. We'll try to keep our voices down, too. And we would never dream of playing a radio in the wilderness, not even to listen to our own show. We would rather not disturb the symphony of life around us, nor its musicians. 

Want to listen to a news story on this research? Click here for a piece from NPR's Morning Edition

What Does the EPA Do, Anyway?

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

We here at Talkin' Birds like to keep our listeners in the know about anything affecting birds. We've been hearing a lot in the news lately about Scott Pruitt, President Trump's nominee to head the EPA. However, we're not hearing much about the EPA itself, so we thought we'd explain what the EPA does. 

EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency. (By the way, they don't use "the," so we'll stop too.) Their mission is to protect our health and environment, which they do in more areas of life than we had imagined. No fooling: If you check the A-Z index on their website, you'll see documents on everything from acid rain to the pesticide Worker Protection Standard. EPA researches, regulates, funds grants for, and provides information about pretty much anything having to do with the environment and human health in this country.

Environmental research: EPA has research stations throughout the United States. The scientists who work at them share findings with academic institutions, private sector agencies, and research agencies here and in other countries. 

Regulation: When the United States Congress writes environmental laws, EPA writes regulations to enforce them. EPA then helps businesses and other organizations understand and comply with these regulations so they can obey the law.

Grants: EPA uses about half their funding to make grants to nonprofits, state programs, and educational institutions. These grants go to research and environmental cleanups, among other uses. 

In case you're wondering EPA has done for birds, the answer is, "A lot." We bird-lovers are probably all familiar with such bird conservation initiatives as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, established by EPA in 1986 and the Partners in Flight initiative to increase bird habitats in North and South America. EPA regulates use of pesticides; it was they who banned DDT in 1972 because of the harm it does to humans, wildlife, and especially birds. (In fact, EPA maintains a handy pesticide chemical database ) Then there's their data on birds and climate change: for starters, have a look at this page to see how bird wintering ranges have changed over the last fifty years. This short list above just scratches the surface how EPA benefits birds. If you'd like to see more, go to their website and search on "birds." You'll get 3,860 results. Again, no fooling. 

So why is it important to think carefully about who is in charge of EPA? Because that person controls research, regulation, and information about so much that affects the life of all Americans--not just the human ones. 

Birds Provide "Biodiversity Services" that Sustain Ecosystems

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

"Biodiversity" means "the variety of life in a particular habitat." Each life form, from bacterium to towering tree, plays a role in sustaining its ecosystem. Therefore, each life form matters.

There are few ecosystems on Earth with more biodiversity than a rainforest. A recent study shows that the loss of even a few species from that rainforest adversely affects its longevity. Although a forest may look healthy, if the creatures required for maintenance are missing, the forest can't regenerate if it's disturbed, and its trees will eventually die out.

Research from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bshows that intensive land use, such as for agriculture and ranching, often leads to the extinction of local forest birds. These birds perform "biodiversity services" that are necessary for maintaining the rainforest's health, such as keeping down the population of plant-eating insects and dispersing the seeds of tree species. But it isn't just the individual birds species that guarantee the future health of the forest, nor is it the number of species left alive; it's the way these species interact with other kinds of life.

The research team studied the composition of bird communities from 330 study sites in the Brazilian Amazon, sampling more than 450 bird species. They also kept track of what special traits these species possessed, such as their beak size and tail and wing shape. (These traits indicate what kind of job a species has evolved to do.) Then they looked at how landscape change affected these bird populations, specifically those birds who eat insects and those who disperse seeds. 

The results were sobering. When insect-eating birds go locally extinct, leaf-eating insects can prevent young saplings from growing up into mature trees. When birds that eat certain seeds are missing, then the trees that grow from those seeds eventually go missing, too. 

Dr Joseph Tobias, senior author of the study, says that land-use management policy can positively affect forest recovery. He suggests that a forest's ability to regenerate can be preserved, even if it's largely cleared, as long as patches of primary forest survive. “Our findings are a warning flag that we can’t just look at a snapshot of forest health as it appears now—we need to think about preserving the ecosystem processes that will allow forests to survive in the future.”

Next, the team plans to examine the impact of human activity on global ecosystems by using bird traits as a window onto the effects of environmental change.  


The Ancient Polar Climate—and a Giant Bird

If Santa Claus were old enough, a giant bird might have delivered his toys from the Arctic. That's right: researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered fossil evidence of a bird living in the Canadian Arctic about 90 million years ago. They published their findings in Scientific Reports, the online arm of the venerable journal Nature. 

Professor of earth sciences John Tarduno, lead author of the paper, states that his team named the fossil Tingmiatornis arctica after an Inuktikut word for "one who flies." He suggests that the bird would have resembled "a cross between a large seagull and a diving bird like a cormorant"—except that it probably had teeth. No teeth have been found yet, but this bird would have needed them to eat the large, carnivorous fish that lived in the warm waters at that time. 

Wait—warm waters? In the Arctic? You read that right. Dr. Tarduno and his colleagues speculate that the region's climate was rather like that of northern Florida today. So there would have been turtles, fish, and even proto-crocodiles in the food chain.

The T. arctica fossils were found in layers of rock above basalt lava fields. The presence of these lava fields indicates that there was volcanic activity around the time the bird existed. Those Arctic volcanoes would have released plenty of carbon dioxide which, together with methane emissions from large grazing dinosaurs, could have caused a greenhouse effect. So, yes, the weather could have been quite warm.

But what about seasonal ice? Wouldn't there have been ice in winter? Dr. Tarduno says no, because it would have prevented T. arctica from living there. 


We here at Talkin' Birds are excited about the find, but we don't plan to take our warm-weather vacations in the Arctic. We hope that 2017 will be a year of action to prevent climate change so that our planet's cold areas stay cold.





The World's Longest Fences

On our latest show, Ray spoke with Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute about the harm that cats can do to bird populations. Yes, it's sad to say, but those sweet, furry critters kill billions of birds a year in the United States alone. With this sobering statistic on our minds, we were glad to read a recent news item: a five-mile cat fence has been built on Hawaii's Big Island around the Mauna Loa volcano. Whereas individual homeowners can choose to erect fencing to contain their felines, the National Park Service decided to build a single huge one to help protect the endangered Hawaiian Petrel. 

Only about 75 breeding pairs of the Hawaiian Petrel live in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, and cats are a serious threat to them. (Many more petrels live outside the park, but the species is still considered endangered.) Cats are not native to the Hawaiian islands, but they have taken nicely to the environment--including learning to scrabble up the sides of volcanoes to hunt vulnerable native species. The Hawaiian Islands are home to several conservation fences, of which the one on Mauna Loa is the longest. The new fence, which took four years to construct, encircles upper Moana Loa, enabling the petrels to rear their young in relative peace. It's six feet tall, with a curved top designed to be impossible for cats to climb. You can read all about the fence's construction here

Pest-proof fencing was pioneered in New Zealand and Australia, where invasive species are a recent enough phenomenon that it is often possible to tell which invader wiped out what native species. While the Mauna Loa cat fence is the longest in the United States, the longest fence of any kind in the world is the Dingo Fence in Australia, which is 3,488 miles long and protects sheep from dingo attacks.

Birds vs. Hurricanes

You’ve probably heard about the radio-tagged Whimbrel that flew through tropical storm Irene 2011. Even if you didn't, you're probably wondering how the heck she did that. (By the way, don't try this at home: if you hang glide or do other air sports, stay somewhere safe indoors during high winds!)

It may seem obvious to say so, but birds have a lot of experience with flight. For long journeys, they tend to take off when the wind is favorable, just after the passage of a low-pressure system, when it's unlikely they'll fly into a hurricane. Sometimes, however, they're caught in the end of a hurricane’s spiral and are then blown toward the eye of the hurricane, where the winds are much lower. Once they get there, they may make an effort to stay there, because flying in that relative calm takes less energy than fighting to get out. In fact, they may remain in the eye until the hurricane dissipates. 

After a hurricane, most seabirds find their way back to shore quickly if they're not too weakened from flying so long without food. Other birds, however, can require more time to recover and then take several days to return to their usual territory. It is these birds that birders are excited to see as they pass though areas where they aren't usually found. 

As hard as hurricanes are on individual birds, their habitat feels the effect more. High winds can knock nests out of trees, knock down the trees themselves, and uproot plants that birds use for food sources. For example, hurricane Hugo wiped out 60 percent of 500 groups of birds in North Carolina in 1989, and 87 percent of trees where they lived were destroyed, according to the National Wildlife Federation. If this sounds like bad news, remember that a change in habitat means a change in composition of life there, not the end of life. Yes, birds that prefer tall trees can no longer thrive when those trees are blown down, but birds that like low growth will increase their breeding population. Unlike human destruction of habitat, natural events can cause productive transformation. 

The next time we here at Talkin' Birds hear about birds being blown around by a hurricane, we'll be concerned for the birds, of course, and we might even rush to see them if it's safe to do so. However, maybe we'll plan to visit that location in a few years and see how the entire picture has changed. How about you?




Miss Your Sweet Corn? Here's Why: Birds and Drought

We're all aware that this summer's drought conditions in several areas of North America are affecting agriculture. It is difficult for farmers to grow water-intensive crops such as walnuts and avocados without extensive irrigation, often by importing water from less drought-stricken areas. Some crops, however, are affected less directly: thirsty birds that can't find water to drink are eating up moist crops. 

Here's an example: Fenton Farms, a small farm in Batavia, New York, has lost almost all its eight acres of sweet corn to birds, specifically grackles, starlings, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Owners Paul and Gail Fenton are accustomed to giving up "a couple hundred dozen" stalks to bird damage, but this year, all of their fields are devastated. Usually, the birds eat the field corn before turning to the sweet corn that's so highly prized by farm stand shoppers. However, this year the field corn suffered so badly from the lack of water that the birds had to turn to the sweet corn instead.

These troubles aren't occurring only on Fenton's farm. There's been significant bird damage to crops all over North America.

A shortage of sweet corn for human consumption is a small effect of drought. But the drought has a much larger effect on birds. For example, birds that are forced to find water on farms can face dangers there—such as mowing—that they wouldn't face in their normal habitat. Birds crowd one another at watering holes that are smaller or fewer than usual, increasing the spread of illness. Birds that eat insects will find less food when water levels are low because fewer insects will hatch.

What can we do to help? Well, aside from getting involved in local water policy and taking measures to conserve water, we can make more water sources available to birds. Bird baths and water features in our yards help, as does putting out moist food such as fruits and vegetables. Cleaning up local waterways, no matter how small, can make the difference between a good habitat where birds will congregate and a bad one that they'll pass on the way to the cornfield. 

So next time you wish you saw sweet corn at a farm stand, maybe you won't mind as much if you think about the thirsty bird it nourished. Then support the farmer: buy the tomatoes and peppers instead.