For the Birds Radio Program: Adjusting to Less

Original Air Date: May 31, 2000 (estimated date)

As birds dwindle, is it a good thing that we adjust so well?

Audio missing


I’ve been reading Red-tails in Love by Marie Winn, an interesting book about bird watching in Central Park. Birders have reported a phenomenal 275 species in the New York City park over the years, and though many were rarities seen once or twice, 190 species are seen most years.

During migration many birds passing over that heavily urbanized part of the country drop out of the sky the moment they spot that oasis of green. Birders there delight in both the common chickadees and titmice that take peanuts from their hand all year and the rare warblers that pass through every May. Many of the birds that try to nest there come to bad ends, but birders feel a personal triumph at the ones that do succeed, against all odds, in bringing up babies despite the concrete and steel, cats, rats, crows, and other urban dangers.

A person living in the heart of New York City has a different sense of the natural world than we do here in the northland. People there scale down their expectations. Overall, Central Park is a population sink—as birds disappear, they’re replaced by an excess produced somewhere else. Contiguous large wild areas produce the overflow—the surplus populations of birds that finally appear and are treasured in the Big Apple.

Little by little, though, some birds are disappearing even from wild areas. Nighthawks were truly common when I started birding in the 70s. Throughout the 80s I could hear them at UMD and in downtown Duluth just about any June evening. My Uncle Dick used to watch them every summer night from his downtown Chicago highrise. Now he virtually never sees them, and I have trouble finding them even in wilder areas-these formerly abundant birds are now reported on rare bird alerts. And Purple Martins are dwindling as pesticides and eutrophication wipe out their food resources. But few birders seem to notice the loss. Even in this natural area here in the northland, we’re starting to scale down our expectations the way New York City birders always have, thrilling at the many rare transients instead of the once-abundant residents.

There are probably just as many birds today as there were when I started birding. What we’ve lost in nighthawks, martins, thrushes, and warblers we’ve made up for in crows, cormorants, robins, and other species that thrive side by side with people. If the natural race of Peregrine Falcons that once populated the East can’t survive here anymore, falconers just produce a hybrid race that can adapt to cities. The vast majority of people don’t notice the difference, and those of us who do are, little by little, adjusting to the kind of natural world Europeans adapted to centuries ago. The Irish probably don’t miss forests that disappeared before their great­ grandparents were born. The English find their little Robin Red-breast so pleasing that they forget about the wilder species that disappeared two millennia ago. In many ways we’re making enormous improvements with the environment–certain kinds of smog that were rampant during the Industrial Revolution are disappearing, insecticides still kill songbirds but at least break down before they reach us, and Lake Erie isn’t on fire anymore. But some losses are permanent. No human being will ever again see a living Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Heath Hen, or Carolina Parakeet.

President Clinton recently signed the Neotropical Bird Act, which will work for the protection of dwindling songbirds. I hope the next administration enforces this new law so our children and our children’s children won’t, like Marie Winn and her beloved red-tails, be left with nothing but a small little park to make up their entire natural world, never even guessing how very much they’ve lost.