Birds can be spotted all year round throughout the US. Introducing children to bird watching is a perfect way to getting them interested in nature and wildlife. And research shows that exposing children to nature decreases stress and boosts creativity.
Our children deserve to see and hear the birds. Yet, the latest news about birds being found dead in large numbers has the aura of science fiction. But it is all too real, like a message being sent with the clear subtext that something is drastically wrong with the health of our planet.
A few months ago, posts started going around on social media – from serious bird watchers to those with backyard feeders. It was shared that fewer birds had been visiting, and that the variety of birds had diminished.
Birds have an acutely sensitive respiratory system. (Think the “bird in the coal mine” trope.) They have been struggling to cope with the chemical innovations of humans since the 1960s, when insecticides and pesticides came on the scene.
Since 1970, the population of birds in North America has dropped by 3 billion (29 percent). Now, with an escalation of severe weather events from hurricanes to wildfires, birds continue to be at risk – including the possibility of species extinction.
I had the opportunity to interview Joanna Wu, an avian ecologist on one of the National Audubon Society’s science teams about the high number of birds that have been found lifeless since September. Wu had written an article about the connection between wildfires, climate change, and how birds are impacted. Through concentrating on data analysis, she is able to determine what is on the horizon for birds.
This past summer, Wu was a co-author on a paper which determined that the top three threats to birds (based on a study of 544 birds in America) were: Human land cover conversion, sea level rise, and extreme weather events.
We discussed a variety of theories about the high number of birds that have been found lifeless since September. There are many mitigating factors. Wu spoke about birds who were on their fall migration path when smoke might have forced them off course. Their bodies were both dehydrated and emaciated. They also could have hit a cold snap which they couldn’t withstand.
If fires are small and of short duration, birds can adapt and survive. Although they are more susceptible to smoke than mammals, they can fly away from danger and return when conditions are no longer severe.
Yet just as hurricanes have evolved into “superstorms” as a result of climate change, “megafires” are now a top concern. The term denotes unnatural fires, as opposed to natural fires, which occur periodically as nature’s way to foster an ecological balance.
Wu noted the different way that Native Americans and European colonial settlers have engaged with fires. Indigenous people saw how small fires, controlled burns, could be a useful tool to burn depleted vegetation. The settlers saw fires as something which needed to be suppressed. Without using some form of control in forests and other areas which have accumulated large areas of dry brush, shrubby habitats become explosive tinder, yielding the type of megafires that have become common.
Emphasizing that all elements of nature interact, Wu stated that premature warmer temperatures create an earlier blooming of leaves, which in turn affects insects. If a caterpillar doesn’t have the foliage it needs to survive, baby birds (voracious eaters) will starve. It’s a delicate interaction.
The top way to help birds to thrive is simple. A concerted effort to reduce carbon emissions. Developers also need to be aware of the ways that creating urban settings can add to habitat destruction.
As the mother of a 6-year-old, Wu wants children to understand the “unprecedented challenges” that birds are facing. She shared how raising native plants in gardens can support insects and birds, and is an easy step to make environments more hospitable. (So is keeping your cat indoors!)
Becoming a mother has made Wu more politically proactive in pushing to protect the environment. “It will benefit our future generations,” she said.