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bluebird

Because of conservation efforts, bluebird populations are on the rise.

To be aroused from a deep slumber on a spring morn to the lyrical song of a Western meadowlark is divine: three strong outstretched notes followed by a succession of flute-like tones, each seeming to tumble over the former, reminiscent of a stream bounding over river rock.

Such were my awakenings each spring morning in the Timberline environs tucked beneath the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks five miles northeast of Flagstaff a decade ago. I had always favored the melodic song of this grassland bird over any other, and I felt blessed to embark each spring day hearkening to it.

But then, along came the Schultz fire with terrible floods and mudslides in its wake. Our side, the eastern side, of the San Francisco Peaks was nearly devastated.

Since this disaster, I have never again awakened to that glorious song of the meadowlark. Nor have I since spied a formerly frequent visitor to my property, the Lewis’s woodpecker. Clearly, my neighborhood no longer serves as a connecting link to their natural habitats.

I believe we’re all aware that habitat-destructing events such as the Schultz Fire are occurring at an astonishing rate throughout the nation. It’s probably intuitive to most of us that bird populations are suffering because of it. Well, now it’s been proven.

A comprehensive study of North American wild birds was published in Science a few weeks ago reporting that three billion birds have vanished from North America since 1970, in part because of habitat loss. That’s nearly 30% of our feathered friends.

No wonder the Western meadowlark was hard hit from the habitat loss of the Schultz fire; nearly three-quarters of all meadowlarks across North America have been wiped out since 1970. In fact, the number of grassland birds in general have shrunk by about half.

At the onset of this study of 529 bird species, researchers had expected to find that rare species were becoming rarer, while common species, like sparrows, would be somewhat resilient to environmental changes. But they found that many birds we’re accustomed to seeing are dying off.

Gerardo Ceballos, of the Autonomous University of Mexico, asserts, “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem.” Extensive damage to any ecosystem bodes ill for all organisms in it, including humans. Don’t forget; birds eat a great deal of crop-destroying and disease-spreading insects.

The study noted that slight exposures to neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, caused sparrows to lose weight, thereby delaying migration and lowering chances of survival.

There were a few bright spots in this otherwise bleak study. For one, bluebird populations have been on the rise, likely because people set out bluebird houses designed to discourage other cavity nesters. This practice had its origins in the 1930s when American farmers, who depended on bluebirds for insect control, observed that bluebird populations were dwindling.

Additionally, waterfowl populations have increased by 56%! Here we can give much credit to waterfowl hunters, who are an important source of revenue for conservation programs.

After many years of decline, birds of prey made amazing recoveries after the insecticide DDT was banned in 1972. Of this finding, Ken Rosenberg at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, expressed, “The birds come back like gangbusters” when the causal factor, like DDT, is diminished.

The positive side of this study is that it serves as a wake-up call to the magnitude of the problem, and, perhaps we’ll feel compelled to do something about it. Since cats and window collisions are also major causes of bird deaths, we can start by keeping our cats indoors and applying anti-collision decals or screens to our windows.

Rosenberg concludes, “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

It may well be that I’ll nevermore wake up to the melody of the meadowlark. But then, who knows? I too, am hopeful.

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Cindy Murray is a biologist, elementary tutor and Coconino Master Gardener and co-editor of Gardening Etc. If you have a gardening question, you can call the Master Gardener hotline at 928-773-6115 or email CoconinoMasterGardener@gmail.com.

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