Maximizing the Survival of the Birds We Love and the Trees We Plant

Tree Canopies and Bird Survival

As we write this blog, we are all isolating ourselves at home because of the novel corona virus, and finding ways to keep calm. Lucy is thankful for the trees in her yard and the visiting birds with their songs, and, for the ability still to simply walk in nature to enjoy the trees and birds during this incredibly unprecedented and unsettling time. Lucy has taken a strong interest in birds and photographing birds, so also is thrilled to share some of the images here of the birds that live in the trees.

Northern Parula Warbler

Trees are critical for meeting the many birds’ basic needs for survival. Trees provide sap, buds, nuts and fruit for birds and host insects in bark and leaves. The leaves collect water for small birds to drink and many birds will rub against wet leaves to bathe. Thick branches and leaves provide shelter for birds in all weather and many birds roost in trees. Many cavity-nesting birds will drill holes in trees to nest, while others build nests on branches. 

Why Is Maximizing the Survival of Birds Important to Us in North America?

Birds have great personal and economic value to people. We are learning from many sources, including TheSpruce.com website, that one third of human food comes from plants that are pollinated by birds, butterflies and other wild pollinators. Birds also  disperse seeds and help to control rodents, insects, and other pests that would otherwise devastate crops, forests, and ecosystems. In Western N. America, Savannah Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, Egrets, and other birds help control grasshopper populations that would otherwise destroy many crops. In Eastern N. America, nesting Wood Warblers consume 84% of the eastern spruce budworm that would otherwise decimate forests.

Bridled Titmouse

So many people enjoy seeing birds in their yards, community, at the lake or ocean or while on holidays (e.g., forest hikes and nature reserves). The sound of their songs and their beauty are undeniably lovely, for the most part. They are entertaining to observe and are so complex in their variety and habits. Their flight patterns even feel poetic and balletic at times, as this short, beautiful yet eerie National Geographic video clip of the phenomenon of murmuration by starlings illustrates dramatically https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4f_1_r80RY. How far they migrate, what they eat, how they nest, their mating rituals, all these details are of great interest to people of all ages. Lucy loves to photograph them too, as do many people (https://bit.ly/2Qn14iA).

Long Term Study Shows Bird Loss in North America

A recent study shows that 30% of birds have disappeared in the USA and Canada since 1970. This is a loss of 2.9 billion adult breeding birds. “It’s telling us that our environment is not healthy for birds, and probably also not for humans”, according to Peter Marra, director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. Basically, our birding habitats, food webs and patterns for survival are changing because of temperatures rising, low dose pesticides, fewer water sources, less grassland, and loss of trees. So-called ‘common birds’ – the species many people see every day – represent the greatest losses of birdlife in the study. There are 19 common species that have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970.

Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University at: https://bit.ly/33onkxI.

The study notes that twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground. The losses include favourite species seen at bird feeders, such as dark-eyed juncos (little gray snowbirds that show up in backyards in winter, down by 160 million) and white-throated sparrows (down by 90 million). Meadowlarks are down 130 million from coast to coast. The continental red-winged blackbird population has declined by 92 million. In terms of forest birds in North America, 30 species are highly vulnerable, which is about 49% of breeding forest species. Once again it is expected the composition of our forest bird community will change markedly as the climate warms. On a happier note, water fowl and raptors are on the rise, and when an effort to protect certain species of birds has happened, it has been very successful. 

Research sources for facts and data cited above from: Mass Audubon at https://bit.ly/3d5hp57, and, Cornell University’s Cornell Chronicle, at: https://bit.ly/33onkxI.

What Can We Do To Prevent Bird Numbers From Decline?

This extensive research helps us understand the causes of bird loss and helps researchers identify strategies to prevent continuing bird numbers declining. As individuals there are two categories of activities that we are called to take action on in order to protect birds—and ourselves—from the most severe effects of climate change.  

  1. To avoid the worst effects of climate change we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all scales, from individual actions to international agreements. Please consider, for example:
  • Reducing our personal carbon footprint. See our list of carbon calculators in our resource section of our blog.
  • Getting our communities to buy electricity from renewable sources, or advocating for this.   
  • Advocating for federal leadership to honor the Paris Agreement. 
  • Writing elected officials to encourage environmental and ecosystem stewardship in forestry practices.
House Finch

2. Reducing existing stressors on ecosystems for bird life. Please consider, for example:

  • Keeping cats indoors, since each year, outdoor cats kill more than a billion birds in the US and Canada.
  • Reducing bird injuries and deaths from window strikes by placing feeders at least 25 feet from our homes, and using window decals to prevent collisions. We gave these decals out for Christmas gifts this year.
  • Drinking bird-friendly coffee. Buying and drinking certified bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee reduces stress on migratory bird habitat and natural resources. One place we use to order this certified coffee is through the Audubon Society.
  • Reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides on our weeds, grass and plants. When we visited Arizona we notice many people have gardeners and it is quickest for them to spray the weeds rather than pull them. This is so common, likely no one is thinking of the birds. As well exterminators spray for outdoor bugs like scorpions and other pests, again harming the birds and eradicating the bugs birds like to eat. Lucy is going to focus on stopping this convenience now that she has read that the birds’ systems are weakened from pesticides.
Red-Eyed Vireo
  • Landscaping our yards for wildlife. Since trees are so helpful to birds, adding the appropriate native trees to our landscaping will support and attract a wider variety of bird species that will see the yard as a sanctuary. There are three basic types of trees that can be fantastic for any bird landscaping: Deciduous trees, Coniferous Trees and Fruit Trees. We can choose trees appropriate for our soil chemistry and regional climate and native varieties are best. They will grow more quickly, be healthier, and be more easily recognized by local birds. It is considered best to opt for a variety of tree species to attract the most birds and plan to provide resources for them all year round. We also can choose trees that are a variety of heights, shapes and thicknesses to add variety to our bird-friendly landscaping. This will give birds many options to suit their different preferences. Native flowers and bushes are also great for attracting birds. Source: Mass Audubon, at: https://bit.ly/3d5hp57.
Hepatic Tanager

Maximizing Tree Planting Success

We hope that after reading this post you are now as hooked as we are about tree planting for climate action, landscaping beauty AND bird survival!

Perfect timing, since tonight marks the official start of spring, and — spring is the best time to plant a tree.

We are learning from “Master Gardeners” in Toronto for example, that deciduous trees “should be planted as early in the spring as possible,” and that they “generally require more maintenance,” such as pruning, than do coniferous trees.

Apparently, coniferous trees “prefer planting from mid to late spring when the soil has warmed up a little.”

Next week’s blog post will go into more detail about the range of factors to consider (e.g., what is the tree’s intended function in your landscaping – wind screen? privacy? summer shade?, and, selecting native species for your region and climate zone), plus, tips we are learning from the experts (e.g., signs of tree health to look for when making your choice at a reputable nursery), aimed at helping tree planters, including ourselves, to maximize tree survival rates.

And remember, in last December’s blog post on Tree Joys and Benefits, we learned about research findings on health benefits from spending as little as five minutes a day among trees (including urban trees). The Japanese government even has implemented the policy of Shinrinyoku (or forest bathing) to embed opportunities for time among trees in Japanese society.

Speaking personally, we both really appreciate the calming, renewing benefits of time in Nature and taking a moment to notice bird and tree life, all the more so, in these unsettling times.

Can’t wait until next week for garden planning?

Here’s a guide on “Planting a Tree,” by Toronto’s Master Gardeners to help get you going on your landscaping plans right away [https://bit.ly/33otvBU].

Happy official start to Spring 2020!

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