Male purple finch (Photo by Don Reimer)
Male purple finch (Photo by Don Reimer)
Late last fall, folks who feed wild birds began noting a general lull in feeder activity. The same holds true for my home feeders. For the past month, neighborhood chickadees, goldfinches, mourning doves, jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and a cardinal pair have entered the feeder zone with regularity. Occasionally, a dozen dark-eyed juncos dart into the yard. Two brown creepers and a couple of sporadic tree sparrows from Canadian regions complete the scene. This list may sound reasonably robust, but overall songbird numbers remain low in the midcoast this winter. Results from three 2019 Christmas Bird Counts (Pemaquid, Rockland and Bunker Hill (largely in the Jefferson area) affirm the current scarcity of songbirds.

I’ve heard the obvious question from lots of people: “Where are all the birds?” My concise response: “I’m not totally sure.” Through decades of seasonal observations, I’ve witnessed temporary lulls that can occur between intervals of the summer-fall and winter-spring migration periods. The changeover timing of arriving and departing birds does not always neatly coincide. Lack of feeder action is sometimes due to abundances of wild food crops. “They don’t need us right now,” I’ve said. “Just wait until it snows.” Yes, that has been partially true, but snowfalls haven’t produced great numbers of birds either. With the absence of irruptive winter finches and Bohemian waxwings this year, stands of bright roadside winterberry and ornamental fruits trees in yards remain nearly untouched. This absence of Northern finches is somewhat more understandable, due to their cyclic trends in certain years.

A September 2019 research article in the highly regarded magazine Science drew wide public attention: “Nearly 3 billion fewer birds exist in North America today than in 1970.” These conclusions were “mined from 12 databases built from decades of on-the-ground bird observations in the United States and Canada, often made by citizen scientists. Yearly observations built a record of population-level changes in 529 species, representing 76 percent of birds that breed in North America. Grassland species fared the worst. Some 700 million individual birds across 31 species, including meadowlarks, have vanished since 1970, a 53-percent drop. American sparrows saw the largest drop of any group of birds. Nearly a quarter — 750 million — have disappeared over the past five decades. Even invasive species like starlings, which are highly adaptive generalists, experienced massive losses, with their populations declining 63 percent. Cats may kill more than a billion birds a year, while nearly a billion more die in collisions with buildings.”

In addition to the database information, modern weather radar systems tracked large nighttime masses of migrating birds traveling through the air. “The estimated change in total biomass of birds found a 14-percent drop from 2007 to 2017.”

Despite an abiding infatuation with birds and keen interest in nature conservation matters, I’m not ready to link this massive loss of birds directly to our current state of feeder activity. But I’m also a realist. Through the course of my lifetime, I’ve observed some definite natural declines in real time. As a kid, I listened to summer whippoorwills from my bedroom window. In the coming summer, I’ll be hard pressed to hear a single one. From several decades ago, I recall a contingent of about twenty common terns nesting annually on a compact rocky island at a local pond. That colony no longer exists. Sharp drops in shorebird populations are vividly apparent. For over a decade in the 1990s, I conducted seasonal field surveys of migrant shorebirds at Weskeag Marsh and the Thomaston mudflats. Previous flocks that had contained thousands of fall juvenile birds are reduced to hundreds; species that were plentiful within the marsh, such as black-bellied plovers, are now uncommon there.

So, for now, let’s keep our feeders full and see what happens.