Have you Heard a Cuckoo Lately? Or a Nightingale Sing?

A bleak future for birds?

Will your children’s children ever hear a Cuckoo, or a Nightingale, see a Robin, or a Sparrow? The Turtle Dove will just be known by a verse in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and never again will 200,000 Starlings gather at dusk to tweet goodnight. Unless something changes quickly, they’ll just be those old birds Granny and Grandpa used to talk about.

The British Trust for Ornithology joint BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) for 2010 is currently underway. Participating volunteers are allocated a randomly selected 1 km square within Britain to record habitat and numbers of different species seen or heard within their square sector. The survey was first launched back in 1994 and the latest results (for 2008) were published in August 2009. (The 2009 results are just out and the 2010 survey, in progress now, will probably be available mid-late 2011.)

In decline – 39% of all species surveyed

In total forty one bird species (out of 105) surveyed in the United Kingdom showed a percentage decline in population over the fourteen year period 1994 – 2007 and forty species showed a percentage drop in numbers from 2007 – 2008 (the latest BBS figures available). Of those forty in 2008, nineteen of these were continuing their previous decline and twenty one species showed a lower count but not a longer term, 1994 – 2007, decline. This does not mean that these twenty one species are suddenly declining but might indicate the beginning of a trend in that direction.

North American birding organizations also show declines in their own surveys; the National Audubon Society (Birdlife in the US) shows that populations of some very common North American birds have plummeted in the last forty years, some down by 80%.

It is not all gloom and doom, some species are increasing, the British Trust for Ornithology conducting its Garden Birdwatch year round survey last year (2009) observed very healthy increases, notably the Goldfinch (+78%). Alas the declining Song Thrush ( -22%), Starling (-19%), House Sparrow (-15%), Wren (-20%) and Green finch (-16%) were all seen less often in 2009 compared with the long-term average.

Why is this happening?

It is all the usual suspects. Changes in climate, changes in habitat, encroachment of habitat by mankind and our technology and changes in food availability. This is perhaps especially true in the UK with a large population per square mile and large urban/city areas which are still rapidly expanding. Some say natural predation is a factor but there is no evidence of it, more likely contributing factors are changes in farming methods and although there is still plenty of woodland out there in the countryside, the woodland character and compositions are changing.

What can we do about it?

As members of the public we can feed, water and provide alternate nesting places for birds in our yards and gardens, in our rural, inner city and suburban back yards and even at the window boxes of our flats and apartments. For an upper floor apartment small feeders which stick on the window can be used to put out food but note that birds are not good at identifying window glass and can fly into it or the bird may attack its own reflection. Stickers can be purchased which are transparent to humans but which allow the bird to see the window and avoid collision.

Put out food

Although different species have different preferred foods most will adapt in times of shortage to try other things. Kitchen scraps of almost any kind will be eaten by birds of one kind or another. You can put out meat and chicken bones (it is not cannibalism and let me know if you see them trying to bury the bones for later!), old fruit and their peelings, potatoes really almost anything. Do not feed birds salty or spicy scraps, they are not curry connoisseurs, but they can eat the boiled rice left over. Additionally no desiccated coconut or cooked oats but half a coconut slung from a tree will attract many smaller birds especially members of the tit family. Uncooked oats are good to give birds. Any bird seed from the superstore or gardening store are great including sunflower and peanuts (shelled or unshelled), dried worms or insects, larger seed such as corn for larger birds. You can buy or even make suet cakes or fat balls which are molded seed, dried fruit, nuts or whatever else mixed up with as much suet or lard it takes to hold it together and placed for the birds to peck at – these are frequently very well received by birds and are a high energy diet also.

And give them water

Put out water for them, even a saucer placed (securely!) in your window box or hanging basket will help the birds. Keep the area around and under your bird table or feeder clean to discourage rodents and other creatures looking for a free meal. If you start to feed and water your bird visitors do so regularly, they will know you put food out and will return for more. But if they come looking and food is not there they will have expended energy they cannot afford to waste on a fruitless visit especially at the crucial times of winter and spring.

Nesting boxes

If your garden area is suitable put up a nest box (or two), they can be obtained quite inexpensively and may be a much needed alternative in winter and especially spring for birds. Search online for “nest boxes”, “bird food” and “bird feeders”. In the UK search for the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The JNCC mentioned above is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in the UK.

The survey results are of great concern but, perhaps, if we are all aware of the threat to a significant sector of our wildlife, take action ourselves and encourage the appropriate organizations we can reduce the possibility of species extinctions.

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