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Help migratory songbirds survive

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Help migratory songbirds survive

Paradise not yet lost
The Tanagers and Warblers of Gamboa, Panama

It is almost impossible for a migratory bird to live outside its short life without coming face to face with our modern civilization and all the changes this has brought to the lands we share with them. Tropical forests are being cleared at the highest rate in the history of mankind, and grassland birds have had their tropical homes plowed to grow foods that we can eat. Migrants are forced to dodge their way over and around farms, cities and suburban sprawl as they leapfrog north to their breeding grounds. When we see a beautiful bird singing in the park on a spring day, it is easy to forget that many others did not survive the long journey.

At our farm in Pennsylvania, a male American redstart pirouettes among the fresh buds of the maple trees that line our driveway, flashing black and orange as he goes. He pauses several times a minute to belt out a high-pitched tsee, tsee, see-see, see-you challenge to the male across the road. Forgotten for the moment is his winter territory in a lush mangrove forest along the southern coast of Jamaica, though he will return there when the summer days get shorter and signal that it is time to travel. High in a cherry tree near the edge of the pond a female Baltimore oriole hangs upside down, her yellow olive colours blending in subtly with the dried grasses she is busily weaving into her half-built nest. A few months earlier she was feeding on nectar from the bright orange flowers of an Erythrina tree in a coffee plantation in southern Mexico. The stunning colours of the male scarlet tanager singing in the giant oak tree back in the woods are purely for showing off. Earlier that year, he was in plain clothes as he gobbled down small fruits from a fig tree in the forested lowlands of Ecuador. Within the dark hemlocks that hug the stream a female Acadian flycatcher gives the chiff calls that she used far away in Panama to defend her winter home.

Migratory songbirds lead an intriguing double life. The birds that we welcome to our backyards, meadows and forests in spring have just completed a marathon flight after living for many months in their tropical homes. These migrants are vulnerable to environmental threats that occur thousands of kilometres away from where they breed, in places many of us have never had the chance to see for ourselves. Whether or not particular species are in harm's way depends entirely on the details of their natural history, including what they eat, where they live, and how they compete for the essentials of life: space, food, and mates. This variety among songbirds is what makes them so interesting for naturalists, bird watchers, and ornithologists, but it also makes it a difficult task to keep track of bird numbers from year to year and to pinpoint the cause of their declines.

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Adapted from Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stutchbury. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright 2007 by Bridget Stutchbury. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

 

1. Buy shade coffee
Forest songbirds that winter in the tropics often live in traditional shade coffee farms where there are plenty of trees and food for birds. Most commercial coffee comes from sun coffee farms that have few trees and use lots of fertilizers and pesticides.

2. Buy organic produce from tropical countries
Tropical countries use large amounts of pesticides that are highly toxic to birds, including chemicals that are banned or restricted in North America. Banana plantations use one of the highest pesticide loads of any crop.

3. Buy organic for crops with heavy pesticide use
Some crops in North America are relatively dangerous for birds because of the type of pesticide used or the large area of farmland that receives treatment. Crops like potatoes, corn and cotton pose a chemical threat to birds.

4. Buy wood and paper products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
Companies certified by the FSC use sustainable logging practices that help to make sure the boreal forest will always be a home for the billions of songbirds that nest there.

5. Buy paper products made from recycled paper
The boreal forest is being cut down to fuel the enormous demand for paper products (toilet paper, paper towel, mail-order catalogues).

6. Turn city lights off at night during migration
Many songbirds migrate at night and are attracted to city lights, which they think are stars. Millions of songbirds die every year after getting trapped among our towering skyscrapers.

7. Reduce bird-window collisions
Birds cannot see glass and fly toward reflections of trees or toward what looks like an opening in the wall. Place bird feeders very close (less than 0.5 m) or very far (more than 20 m) from windows to reduce fatal injuries to your visitors.

8. Make your backyard bird-friendly by planting shrubs and trees
During migration, tired and starving songbirds will land almost anywhere in search of a safe place to rest and eat. Invite them to your backyard by offering cover and fruiting trees and shrubs.

9. Keep your cat indoors
An average outdoor cat kills about one songbird per week, so a typical community with a hundred cats that roam outdoors will kill over 1,000 songbirds during the breeding season. There are over 75 million cats in North America!

10. Go pesticide-free on your lawn
The ingredients in many lawn and garden pesticides are moderately or highly toxic to birds (e.g., acephate, malathion, dichlorvos).

Light pollution is harmful for humans, as well. Click here to find out why.

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Adapted from Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stutchbury. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright 2007 by Bridget Stutchbury. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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