Where have all the songbirds gone, long time passing?
They are not much here, not on my one woody acre of the once-so-birdy Eastern Shore. For two decades my home on Rosin Creek has been a birdlife playground and picnic, scene of frantic, furious feasts of unreason.
This time of year, for 20 years gone, I’d be refilling my two seed feeders about every four days. This year I started them again in mid-October, as usual — and two months later I’ve had to refill just twice.
Where goldfinches once clustered half dozens at a time for busy quarter hours, they now come rarely and singly . I see a few sparrows and the resident wren, and yesterday a flock of robins gobbling all the winterberries. I’ve watched murmurations of small black birds over the creek twice this week.
What I hardly see are the previously most common: chickadee, nuthatch, titmouse, junco, house finch and cardinal. I’ve noticed bluejays, as you will do when the bullies come around, but not often. No woodpecker nibbles the suet cakes. No dove pecks the grounds, though a mama dove did raise two broods in her nest atop my window air conditioner this spring for the second year.
I’m certain there are fewer geese resting on the creek these days than were there in recent winters. I’ve heard the flat b’bam- b’bam-bams of shotguns in the far fields, punctuating goose life, really rarely this fall. When the birds aren’t there, it seems, hunters aren’t so much either.
A friend who lives a mile down the Chester River also has refilled her feeders just twice in two months. Two friends who live in Washington, D.C., tell me they see very few birds at their backyard feeders, which years before were busy with them. A pal in Cos Cob, Conn., says the same.
The most avid birder I know, who lives next the Chestertown middle school playground, thinks his feeders are getting normal visits. If mine aren’t, he advises, it may be that a neighbor has set some up in better habitat, an owl has taken up close residence, or an outdoor cat is prowling near. Or, maybe I let my feeders get moldy, as people often do, and birds are repulsed.
I want that to be it. I dump the old seed, soak feeders in bleach, rinse, dry, rehang and refill with hope. Nope. They don’t much come. They’re hardly here.
Yes, my observations about vanished birds are personal, random and scant. Anecdotes aren’t science. And the variables are many.
But . . .
When I check with the Cornell Lab, the go-to source for bird fandom, I’m appalled to learn the first-ever comprehensive assessment of avian populations of the U.S. and Canada has found a three-billion-bird decline since 1970. And, “Losses include favorite species seen at bird feeders, such as Dark-eyed Juncos (down 168 million), White-throated Sparrows (down 93 million) …even the Red-winged Blackbird [historically abundant in Maryland marshes] has declined by 92 million birds.”
In summation the authors of the study call this “A staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling.”
And consider: that study is dated 2019. Does anybody think the natural (and unnatural) world has gotten any more benign for living things over the past four years?
Not for birds, not according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which this fall reports Bird Flu is raging again in North America, “has spread around the world with astonishing speed…and recently reached the Antarctic for the first time.”
The department states the H5N1 virus has affected 72 million farmed birds in the U.S. alone over the past three years and last winter saw the worst bird flu outbreak in the nation’s history.
Next, from the journal Nature Communications: “In the United States alone, outdoor cats…have contributed to the extinction of at least 63 species of birds, mammals and reptiles.”
I don’t hate cats. I keep one. But Harpo has sneaked outside just once in his life and was snatched right back and chastised, so he’ll never do it again of course. I do despise cats that creep into the yard, attentions on my feeders. I have worse regard for their errant keepers. But I cannot blame cats for the birds I don’t see. They do what they’re born to do. And we took them there, brought them here. No, it’s on us. People.
And maybe our feeders? Some avian researchers, their views not ascendant, argue that feeders are threats to songbirds, bringing species that instinctively keep apart flocking unnaturally close in hunger, spreading sickness and death. This is some expert advice I have so far declined to heed, from selfish birdish pleasures, despite that logic.
And now, just before Christmas, Nature Communications presents us another study, estimating 1,430 bird species or 12 percent of all the avian species ever thought to exist, have been driven to extinction by human activity over the past 120,000 years. This team of scientists at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology warns the world is at risk of losing up to another 738 bird species over the next few hundred years — due to climate crisis, diminished food sources and deforestation (People!).
When will we ever learn?
Not in our time on earth. Apparently.
John Lang is a writer living in Chestertown. He has been a reporter/editor for The Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post and Scripps-Howard News Service.