For the Birds Radio Program: Changing Bird Numbers

Original Air Date: Nov. 20, 2003

If our government can make preemptive strikes on human beings simply to prevent something bad that might happen in the murky future, why can’t they do something to help when something bad actually is happening to the natural world? (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


November is often a dark and dismal time in Duluth, when the birds at my feeder are discouragingly few and far between. But this fall for some reason the weather has been lovely much of the time, and my backyard has been hopping with birds. Even as days grow short and most birds have moved on, I’m still feeding dozens of juncos, a few White-throated Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows, and several Fox Sparrows. Five Mourning Doves come most afternoons, and now and then goldfinches, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins have been showing up. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, both nuthatches, and my chickadees are around most of the time. And for the past two days, a Pine Warbler has been visiting my suet.

When birds are unusually common or unusually rare at our feeders, we have a natural tendency to draw conclusions about population trends. That isn’t always supported when we look at numbers over a wide area, but sometimes it is. Anyone living in Duluth during the 1980s who didn’t notice the sudden huge increase in Ring-billed Gulls just wasn’t paying attention, and sure enough, this local increase was matched throughout the entire Great Lakes region. The crow population suddenly surged in the past two decades, too. I was in Cleveland a week ago, and although I went birding in several spots, never saw a single crow and saw only four chickadees. Those local Ohio declines are matched in other areas hit hard by West Nile Virus, but so far our northland crows and chickadees haven’t been hurt.

One of the most common and regular birds at my feeders during the 1980s was the Evening Grosbeak. I used to have flocks just about all the time, year-round, but most heavily in late summer and fall, and through the winter and early spring. This year I’ve had Evening Grosbeaks at my feeder just once all year, when a flock of five females showed up for about ten minutes this month. Are Evening Grosbeaks declining? This is an irruptive species, meaning some years the population is naturally higher than other years, but all evidence says the species is suddenly in a tailspin. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published a paper about the decline, showing that the numbers significantly dropped in the Great Lakes area and northeastern US between the 80s and 90s, and the rate of decline became even steeper during the 90s. This lovely bird, which not only causes humans no problems whatsoever but actually helps us by eating spruce budworm, was one of the characteristic species of the northern forest that enhanced our quality of life with its visual and auditory beauty.

Of course, during the last decade, the number of cardinals in the northland has increased dramatically. Cardinals fill me with joy, but somehow this hasn’t been an even trade. I could see plenty of cardinals in the Twin Cities or Chicago, where they’ve been common my whole life. Cardinals haven’t declined in one place in order to sprout up in another. Evening Grosbeaks are out-and-out disappearing, and even though there are still lots of other birds in my yard, I feel their loss acutely.

We’re going to have birds on this planet as long as life is fit for at least some humans. The question is which birds. And when a beloved Northwoods species declines, we need to make a decision: what are we prepared to do? Do we sit on our hands waiting for the Evening Grosbeak to be completely wiped out in this entire region of the country, or do we roll up our sleeves and get to work figuring out what is going on in time to prevent further declines? Our current governmental policy is to drop bombs on human beings in preemptive strikes just in case something bad might have happened. When we have clear evidence that something bad actually is happening right now in the natural world, why doesn’t that same government take notice?