On Sunday afternoon, I attended a lecture by Bridget Stutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds, an important environmental book you need to read if you have any interest in or concern for our North American songbirds. The lecture was part of a series put on at the University of Toronto covering a wide range of topics/issues. Next week is a talk on predicting natural disasters, which I also intend to attend.
Stutchbury's lecture was straightforward and relaxed but also eye-opening and profound. I got the sense that she was holding back her passion, ready to boil over but she had to stick to her PowerPoint presentation (a one-on-one would no doubt be fascinating). A lot of the talk was an overview of the main points of her novel and yet I still found myself surprised by the amazing journey our songbirds take every year during migration, disheartened by the statistics on dwindling bird populations, and at times (admittedly) ashamed of being a part of the problem: mainly bad consumer choices and not using my (modest) knowledge to better spread the word.
Much of the problem has to do with habitat destruction and indeed, this was the focus of her presentation. Forest fragments are far from the ideal nesting grounds for birds where they become an easy target for predators like Raccoons, Possums, Skunks, snakes, and even other birds. The nests are simply easier to access for predators since the fragments are often surrounded by open fields or, in the case of Toronto, cityscape. This disrupts territorial species and forces many to settle for sub-par nesting locations. The energy demands and stress on the parents (building the nest, feeding the young, and for the female, laying the eggs) prove to be even more difficult when faced with these poorer habitats. The protection of the Boreal Forest is imperative.
She also explained the problems in the south. Tropical forests, the overwintering habitats for most of our species, is being cut down alarmingly fast. The satellite imagery she showed us of the destruction of the forests in Brazil is pathetic. Another danger? Coffee plantations. Shade-grown is the best choice, where plants are grown under the canopy of natural rain forest, leaving pristine areas intact. On the other hand, sun-grown coffee (many of the cheaper brands we buy in bulk tin cans or many coffee shop chains) require clear-cutting of forests to make way for fields that are now uninhabitable to overwintering songbirds. Pesticides present another huge problem where regulations differ in N. America and S. America. Although there are pesticides banned for being too dangerous in N. America, there are less stringent regulations in S. America so many of the fruits we buy have been sprayed heavily with pesticides we have banned here! This is backwards. Images of piles of Swainson's Hawks killed by the toxins used in the pesticides are indicative of the extreme effect we can have on bird populations based on the chemicals we use.
I have already written much more than I intended in this post. Read Stutchbury's book and get the overall picture (she gets more into climate change, high-rise collisions, stray cats, and a laundry list of other issues). It's grim but hopeful. I certainly respect all the research she has done into North American songbirds and the message she sends out to the public.
I'll end with a couple of links to one of her newest research discoveries, a huge breakthrough that will change the way we view migration (who knew it could be more astonishing?!). She brought up some of her studies during the lecture and it's amazing how much more we can learn with the new technologies we have at our disposal. It's ongoing work like this that will bring better understanding of how we can stop the serious decline of our songbirds. For my part, I will continue to study and appreciate Class Aves and make changes in my life that will lessen my own impact on their decline.
Birder's World article featuring the new research
York University release of the study
Do try to give both a read, even if it's just a quick skim.