A Bird’s Tale

What is Really Needed to Help the Birds We Love

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 10:00am

We all want to help the birds we love. We put up feeders filled with seed and suet. Some people go so far as to buy special foods like mealworms for them. We make bird houses and erect them around the yard. We landscape for birds on our property using native plants. We keep our cats indoors — at least, we hope so.

All are important and helpful actions.

But are these actions enough to reverse the declines in so many bird populations?

If you haven’t thought about this before, then we hate to be the bearers of bad news the answer is, “No, these actions are not enough to make the difference birds need.”

On our own property we know that, in some years, we have nesting black-capped chickadees in the nest box we put up on the back of the garage. Most years we have a nesting pair of song sparrows in the hedges and an American robin nest high up in the crab apple tree. Some years we have a gray catbird nesting in the forsythia. The birds that come to our feeders probably include 40-50 individuals of around 10 species that are regulars. In migration and winter, the number of birds that may find a few morsels of food, a sip of water and some shelter for at least an hour or two is certainly in the many hundreds over a year.

Sure, we can feel good about those numbers as can all of you who can probably make similar or even better claims about the number of birds that you harbor in and near your property.

Still, the reality is that most of the birds that we support in our yards are the common and increasing or stable species, not the ones of conservation concern. The solutions to conserve populations of the majority of birds must be carried out over massive scales in order to be effective.

The waterfowl hunting community recognized this long ago. They advocated for establishment of new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges and new funding streams beginning with the so-called Duck Stamp program in the 1930s, which has funded the protection of more than six million acres of habitat over the years. Later, in the 1960s, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was established by the federal government to take a small royalty from each sale of an offshore oil and gas lease and apply it to conservation to benefit wildlife, the environment, and all of us. Many millions of acres of wildlife habitat have been protected through this program despite the fact that only a fraction of the money generated from the royalties has ever actually been authorized by Congress to go toward its intended conservation purpose.

Hopefully all of us who care about growing back our bird populations will also think big and expand what we consider part of the “bird conservation” agenda.

That’s why when we talk about legislation that we would label as “bird conservation” legislation we talk about the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and, for you policy nerds out there, the National Environmental Policy Act to name a few. Yes, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is an important part of the solution as well, but these other pieces of legislation impact the future of more bird populations because they help ensure cleaner water and air, and smarter, less-harmful development across the entire nation.

The “bird conservation” agenda must include support for funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service at the federal level and, here in Maine, for the departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources, Environmental Protection, Conservation and the often-overlooked Land Use Planning Commission and Land Use Regulation Commission.

Our “bird conservation” agenda must include renewed support for the bond act to fund Land for Maine’s Future and for the new recommendations of the Maine Climate Council including the adoption of the new, higher global benchmark for land protection.

These are the kinds of solutions that we need to adopt if we are to protect and grow the populations of hundreds of millions of birds across hundreds of millions of acres of habitat. We hope that, like us, you will keep taking actions in our backyards to do what we can to help the birds we love. But it is critically important that we ALL start to support and push for the big picture actions that are the only way we will ever ensure that the birds we care about are here for our future and for the future of generations of our loved ones to come.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).