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A bird is not just a bird

Photo by Keith Olstad
Golden-winged Warbler populations have declined precipitously in across the US and need protection in Minnesota.

“Are you seeing fewer birds in your neighborhood this year?” The sad question came from our dinner guest. “Wrens used to nest in our yard, and ducklings used to waddle to a nearby pond.  This year we’ve got nothing.” As others considered their responses, I thought about similar questions I’ve seen online. While it may be too early to say for sure, a disturbing number of correspondents think we’ve now got fewer birds than in previous years.

Certainly there is reason to pay attention. On one hand, some notable species are in a remarkable rebound from just a few decades ago. Bald Eagles soar over our lakes and waterways and Ospreys once again nest near metropolitan lakes, due to concerted recovery efforts for state and federal wildlife agencies.

Trumpeter swans declare their presence in marshes and lakes, and Sandhill Cranes trumpet their resurgence, again due to the diligent attention of wildlife officials. But Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined by as much as 80 percent in the last 50 years, and Golden-winged Warbler populations have plummeted. Common Loons face tragic suffering from both oil spills and lead poisoning from shotgun pellets.

According to National Audubon Soceity statistics, as many as half of our migratory bird species are in serious danger.

Regrettably, if bird populations are in trouble now, things are only going to get worse unless we act. In December the Trump administration essentially gutted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Through the solicitor general, the federal government declared it no longer would hold corporations or businesses accountable for the preventable death and destruction of birds and other animals. As a result, potentially millions of birds could die in oil field evaporation ponds or spills, on commercial fish farms or in collisions with building windows (and these are just a few of the potential scenarios).

The Trump memorandum discourages creative problem solving by commercial fishing operations, energy producers, transmission line operators and others to minimize the impact of their operations on birds. Because Minnesota sits in the Mississippi Flyway, a major migratory route for millions of birds, these things matter.

While on the surface this may seem like no big deal, the health of bird populations has far reaching implications. Of course, many of us find beauty and comfort in the cheery refrains of birdsong and in the startling color of an oriole’s flutter. There is much more at stake than the aesthetics of hearing or seeing birds, though. It turns out a bird is not just a bird. Besides sharing its beauty, a bird can be a tourism promoter, an insect consumer, a garden facilitator, a garbage processor and an indicator of environmental health.

Given the number of Minnesotans who depend on tourism for income, birds are major partners in promoting trips to lakes and parks, woodlands and prairies.

Bird watching is the second biggest hobby in the U.S. (gardening is first), creating an immense economic stimulus for many Minnesota communities. Based on a 2006 survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  estimates that birders across the country spend about $12 billion annually on travel and an additional $24 billion on equipment. During the spring migration thousands of Minnesotans head to prairie potholes, flyway corridors and birding “hotspots” to observe the mysteries of birds’ astounding journeys. If we lose our birds we lose a major economic resource in our state.

On Minnesota’s farms, in our vegetable gardens and our flowerpots, and on our patios during the summer, birds are ravenous bug eaters. Wrens, flycatchers, warblers and many other species keep biting insects from our skin and destructive insects from our flowers, trees and crops.  Sparrows and larks, shrikes and kestrels eat insects that otherwise cause inestimable harm and loss for farmers’ harvests. A controlled study in Jamaica estimated the value of bird pest control to be about one-eighth the value of the crop tested — an impressive economic impact.

Around Minnesota, birds also work as gardeners. In the woods around lake cabins and in the pastures and prairies of our farms, bobolinks, meadowlarks and sparrows disperse seeds and nutrients. Pines, ash trees and birch count on birds to spread their seeds afar. Hummingbirds and warblers pollinate flowers and keep vegetables and fruit trees producing their harvests. 

Birds are also our garbage processors. Turkey vultures and eagles, crows and jays scavenge carcasses on our roadsides and in our dumps. Numerous bird species recycle nutrients from fruits, vegetables and grasses.

Every bird serves our community in many ways. And heedlessly ignoring their plight invites the demise of yet another pivotal partner in maintaining the quality of human life in our state.

Most of us love birds and the joy they bring to our lives.  As these feathered jewels face daunting challenges in the months and years ahead, take action by writing your state and federal legislators, and stay informed by checking conservation websites and taking yourself into the outdoors.

Keith Olstad is Board President of the Audobon Chapter of Minneapolis

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Molly Thompson on 07/26/2018 - 09:12 am.

    Decreasing bird numbers

    I wonder if people are considering the detrimental effects of hiring mosquito control companies to “free their yard of annoying bugs.”?
    Do they realize that those annoying bugs are food for the birds, frogs and fish that seem to have gon missing in their yards and ponds???

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/26/2018 - 12:44 pm.

      Mosquitoes are not simply “annoying”

      Mosquitoes carry disease, so the decision to enact control measures is not simply based on eliminating an “annoyance”. As is so often the case, it’s more complicated than that.

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