“The Sedge Is Withered From The Lake, And No Birds Sing”
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
This morning, Raven serenaded me from his perch atop the wintery branch of a nearby evergreen. Native peoples, particularly those of the Pacific Northwest, say that Raven carries a message from the spirit world. I was unable to decypher his message on this cold and dank mountain morning, but, nevertheless, I was happy to make his acquaintance.
Birds occupy a vital link in the food chain, controlling insects, pollinating blossoms and spreading seeds, but, according to recent reports from a number of sources, our feathered friends are not doing so well. An estimated three billion songbirds, twenty nine percent, have vanished from US and Canadian skies since 1970. The population of goldfinches and sparrows is down by fifty percent, and even the number of robins seems to be diminishing. Species common to forests are down by one billion, and grassland species are down by fifty percent or approximately seven hundred million. One fifth of our shore birds have also vanished. Europe is experiencing a similar phenomenon.
Not everyone loves blackbirds, but I grew up thrilling to the songs of redwings as they perched atop cattails in my grandfather’s pasture. Even the population of blackbirds has dropped. While warblers have suffered among the greatest decline in numbers, an estimated six hundred seventeen million, those less beloved species like the common starling have also experienced losses. The starling is an exotic species in North America, introduced by Eugene Schieffelin, a New York businessman, who in 1890, somehow convinced himself that the continent should host all of the birds that appear in the plays of William Shakespeare and released sixty specimens into Central Park. Most people regard starlings as a nuisance. Be that as it may, even the population of starlings has dropped by forty nine percent.
Grassland species seem to be the hardest hit, with an estimated seven hundred seventeen million having vanished. One cause of this massive disappearance may be the expansion of agricultural land, together with sprawling urban and suburban real estate development.
Climate change has been suggested as one cause of plummeting songbird numbers. Perhaps more likely is the extensive use of pesticides that include such ingredients as nionicontinoids. Ingestion of nionicontinoids limits birds’ ability to gain weight, rendering migration more challenging. Then, too, the shrinking insect population deprives many birds of their main food source.
The fatal effects of nionicontinoids upon honey bees has been well documented. Nionicontinoids disrupt bees’ intricate navigational abilities and limits their reproduction. The European Union, always, it seems, more alert than the US to environmental threats, has banned the use of three insecticides that contain nionicontinoid: Clothianidain and thiamethoxam, as well as Bayer’s imidacloprid.
According to Steven M. Drucker in his book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, nearly one hundred percent of the US corn crop as well as one third of the soy bean crop is regularly saturated with pesticides containing nionicontinoids. Nionicontinoids are absorbed by plants and continue to be present in pollen and nectar. Given that nionicontinoids are a mild but insidious neuro-active toxin, one ponders the long term effects upon the human population.
Another factor in the deteriorating bird population may be the growth in the number of feral cats. Cats prey upon birds and other creatures. It has been discovered that 20% of the diets of urban coyotes consist of cats. Perhaps we need more coyotes to keep the feral cat population in check. This suggestion will, of course, not set well with cat lovers. It doesn’t really set all that well with those of us who are dog lovers either, given that coyotes sometimes make off with our smaller canine friends.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is in need of strengthening at a time when President Trump is attempting to weaken it. Stronger habitat protection would be another step in the right direction, particularly in places like the Great Lakes. One step might be to expand lands under protection as national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, but, once again, President Trump has launched perhaps the greatest attack upon public lands in history.
We humans on the whole continue to do a poor job of caring for our island home. The environment that sustains us all is threatened by methane pollution, plastic rubble in the oceans, blue green algae in places like Lake Erie and Florida Bay, destruction of forests and wetlands, wild fires, fracking for natural gas, poaching of endangered wildlife, seismic blasting and offshore drilling for petroleum, rising sea levels, and the growing menace of climate change. Perhaps all birds serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning us of impending ecological disaster, as if more heedless warnings seem to make a difference. If we are doing such a thorough job of poisoning our environment that birds, as well as other creatures, like frogs and honeybees, can no longer thrive, then are we next?
Not all is glum. Some species, like the bald eagle, are experiencing rising numbers. Waterfowl populations have increased, and the number of falcons has grown by thirty three percent. Crows and ravens seem to be ever present, as are turkey vultures, those that I cannot make myself refrain from referring to as buzzards. Wherever I happen to be, I seem to see more and more of those persistent scavengers, nature’s garbage collectors, whose DNA reveals them to be closely related to swans. Perhaps they know something that the rest of us choose to ignore. Perhaps they await the arrival of the Four Horsemen, hoping to satiate themselves on the resulting heaps of carrion. Perhaps that is the message that Raven tried to share with me on this frosty mountain morning.