Where Have All the Songbirds Gone?

Now that I’m in my last month of my experimental “green” birding year I’m going to concentrate more on birds and their decline. It’s a big subject so where do I begin. Let’s go back to around 1989. Somewhere around that time I bought a book called, Where Have All the Songbirds Gone?” by John Terborgh who was at that time a Professor of Biology at Princeton University. While it may not have been the first book on the issue, it was the first to catch my attention. I was surprised to see it still for sale on Amazon.

 John Terborgh is described by Wikipedia this way:

“John W. Terborgh is a conservation biologist.

Terborgh graduated from Harvard College in 1958 and received his PhD in plant physiology from Harvard University in 1963.
Since 1973 Terborgh has operated Cocha Cashu Biological Station, a tropical ecology research station in Manú National Park, Peru. He served on the faculty of the University of Maryland then, for 18 years, on the faculty of Princeton University. In 1989 he moved to Duke University where he joined the faculty of the (now) Nicholas School of the Environment and founded the Duke University Center for Tropical Conservation.

In 1992 Terborgh was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 1996 he was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2005, he was elected Honorary Fellow of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation during the ATBC Annual meeting held in Uberlandia, Brazil.”

John Terborgh’s book is subtitled, “Essays on the Biology and Conservation of Birds That Migrate to the American Tropics” so it’s about our warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, etc. Not only does he writes about their time here in North America but he also writes about their life down south.

What are some of the things that John Terborgh thinks are causing songbird decline. Forest fragmentation which compounds the risk from predators(i.e raccoons, squirrels, jays etc.) and parasites (cowbirds) and tropical deforestation and degradation of other wintering habitats are a main concern. Surprisingly the rise in bird feeders in urban and suburban areas have allowed many predators to survive and expand into other areas. Subsidies for development that allow vast area to be opened to ranching and farming, over population, and land use issues are also mentioned. No where in the book is climate change named as an issue but his in-depth description of migratory ecology explains why it will be and is an issue.

Have things improved since 1989? Yes and no. The “State of the Birds 2009” reported some success with wetland birds because of conservation management but stated, “…that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats.” 

Another 2004 report is rather dismal. 

“Our projections indicate that, by 2100, up to 14 percent of all bird species may be extinct and that as many as one out of four may be functionally extinct-that is, critically endangered or extinct in the wild,” said researcher Cagan H. Sekercioglu of the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) and lead author of the PNAS study. “Important ecosystem processes, particularly decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal, will likely decline as a result.”

Are we like the frog in slowly heated water? Do we notice that bird populations are slowly declining around us? Talk to the old timers. A recent movie called, “The Central Park Effect” did just that. They all have noticed the decline in birds. Some of the old timers in Mendocino have noticed. Some people in other countries have noticed.

Barn Swallows, like the one pictured here, are experiencing a steep decline across Canada. Local farmer Dave Jamieson says he’s only seen a couple of them at his Sarnia area farm this year (State of Canada’s Birds Report 2012).

“Dave Jamieson says he’s noticed fewer birds and bird species at his Bright’s Grove dairy farm in recent years, and wants to know why.

“They’re just not around at all… I can go out all day and I’m lucky to see one,” he said, pointing to the disappearance of barn swallows, chimney swifts and other birds. “How come nobody notices these birds aren’t around?”

Jamieson, who has lived on the property all his life, said he used to see more than a dozen barn swallow nests at one time.

“In the last three years, there’s only been about four; and this is the first year they’ve never had babies,” he said. “Even when you drive along the road, and look at the hydro lines – where birds used to sit all the time – they’re not there anymore.”

Wild bird populations continue to decline in UK is just another example.

Many of the issues that John Terborgh brings up in, “Where Have All the Songbirds Gone?” are being addressed in one form or another by the many concerned birding organizations. Land use issues are being fought over and critical habit is being saved in many areas. The one question I have is, will it all matter if climate change continues it’s march to higher temperatures?

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