Amid Steep Global Bird Declines, Farmers Create Refuges

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Yves here. While this post confirms the sightings by many readers, of a fall in bird populations, it also describes a program to help rebuild their numbers. If any of you are in or near farming communities, please circulate this information to farmers.

There are also efforts you can take. The article recommends what Lambert calls grandmother gardens, with flowers and shrubs and long grasses. as opposed to a sterile suburban lawn. If you are ever in Maine, be sure to check out its Botanical Gardens in Boothbay for inspiration.

One reader is in a condo community where bird feeders are not allowed because squirrels. She has nevertheless put up a hummingbird nectar feeder and it’s been left unmolested. Moreover, she’s found that bees consume most of the nectar, and the hummingbirds lay back till the bees have had their fill. Even though she waits until feeder is empty to replenish it, she says the bees give her a berth while she does so, and she wonders if they recognize her.

By Grave Van Deelen. Originally published at The New Lede

A Rufous hummingbird — a species expected to lose half or more of its population in the next 50 years — sits on a fence. Credit: Daniel Roberts

New research finds that certain farming practices are benefiting some types of birds, underscoring the influence agriculture can have on important species at a time when bird populations around the world are in decline.

Farms that make use of smaller plots, varied crops, and tracts of forest, are helping boost bird populations in Costa Rica, scientists wrote in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings add to previous evidence that diversified farming is an important conservation tool, said co-author and Stanford University researcher Nicholas Hendershot.

“There is a really huge benefit for biodiversity from these diversified farming practices,” he said.

Hendershot and his colleagues determined that over 18 years, bird species living on diversified Costa Rica farms were more likely than those in forests to have increasing, rather than decreasing populations. The varied crops and natural features on diversified farms provide a home for the birds and for insects and other animals that birds eat, said Hendershot.

On intensified farms, which generally plant only one crop and make use of high amounts of pesticides, the only species of birds thriving long-term were those that were adapted to highly-degraded landscapes, indicating the importance of diversified farms to provide habitat for other bird species, he said.

The research also “confirms what Indigenous communities around the world have already known for a long time, which is that humans can and should have reciprocal relationships with the rest of the local ecological community they are part of,” said Tadashi Fukami, an author on the paper and a professor of biology at Stanford University.

A Biodiversity Crisis

 Moving farming practices away from intensive methods (such as high pesticide use and large swaths of land planted with just one crop) may be necessary to stem the loss of biodiversity on Earth — for birds and other species, too. Since 1970, the world has lost 3 billion birds, almost 30% of the global bird population, according to one 2019 paper. Seventy other bird species are at a tipping point, and are on track to lose half their populations in the next 50 years, according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. Birds in every habitat except wetlands are declining in the US.

Converting land for agricultural uses is one of the biggest drivers of the biodiversity crisis, according to the United Nations. Climate change, as well, is a leading cause of biodiversity decline.

Birds are especially important as they tend to indicate the health of a whole ecosystem, said Hendershot, making them a good proxy for understanding human impacts on ecosystems. Birds also contribute to food security and ecosystem health by pollinating crops and devouring crop pests. “We’re so dependent upon birds and the services they provide for us,” he said.

While the new research showed encouraging news for birds living on diversified farms, it was a “sad story” for tropical forest birds, said Hendershot. That’s partly because some tropical forest birds are highly specialized, and adapted to live only within forests. Once those forests are cut down to make way for agriculture, the birds can’t adjust to the new landscape. “Once they’re gone from these landscapes, they could be gone forever,” he said.

Bird-Friendly Farms

While protecting species’ habitats from human activity should always be a priority, promoting biodiversity within human-altered landscapes, such as farms, is necessary, too, said Hendershot. “How we manage farmlands outside of the forest is really important for protecting biodiversity,” he said. “It’s not a replacement for forest conservation, but it’s a tool that can be used in addition.”

Employing diversified farming for conservation in the US may be more difficult than in Costa Rica because most of the acres farmed in the US are used for intensive, single-crop operations that don’t leave much room for wild animal habitat. Intensive farming also requires more pesticide use, which further threatens biodiversity.

“The more intensive your farming practices are, the worse they are for biodiversity, kind of no matter where you are,” said Hendershot.

In the US, some farmers do take bird conservation into consideration. For example, California incentivizes farmers in its Central Valley to flood their crop fields, providing habitat for migrating shorebirds, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides farmers incentives to create habitat for grassland birds.

The Audubon Society, a bird conservation nonprofit, offers a “Bird-Friendly Land” certification for beef produced on grazing land with native grasses and protected waterways.

Chris Wilson, director of Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program, said any type of farming that leaves residual vegetation on the landscape can help support bird populations. Farming practices that do this include restoring native grasses on grazing land, keeping cattle off of riverbanks and wetlands, and moving away from continuous grazing of cattle and towards rotational grazing, which creates a “mosaic of habitat” for birds. Eliminating chemicals is also a priority, since fewer pesticides allows insects, which birds eat, to thrive.

“We know habitat works, and that it absolutely makes a difference on a local level,” said Wilson. “The challenge is getting enough ranchers and landowners to incorporate these types of practices over time and scale.” He said that while bird conservation practices are still uncommon in the US, “there is a growing awareness that a lot of these practices are not only good for birds and wildlife, but that they also increase a rancher’s productivity and land resilience to things like drought.”

Hendershot said even small-scale changes — such as planting a variety of flowers and trees in one’s yard — can have an impact for wildlife.

“You can essentially create a small little diversified farm that can support species that don’t just live in grassy lawns,” he said.

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  1. mrsyk

    I’m pleased to report that here on my little patch in the southern green mountains of Vermont the bird population has been robust this year. The homestead is unruly and un-mowed, with the pollinator friendly in abundance and an extensive lush canopy for dining al fresco, socializing, and keeping a safe distance from the three member cat pride. We don’t do any kind of feeders. We keep the felines well fed on an all day high end max protein diet buffet which seems to keep the kill count down.

    1. GramSci

      In my little corner of Outer Pentagonia, the bird population has been depressed. Perhaps because very locally it has been exceptionally dry. Our birdbath has been exceptionally popular, but with only a few locals using it.

      In re the bees-at-humingbird feeder: ours was overwhelmed by bees. Reducing the water:sugar ration to 5:1 seems to have discouraged them.

      1. mrsyk

        We’ve had a remarkably wet summer here. That’s probably a plus in the habitat of birds. Hope you get some rain!

  2. The Rev Kev

    We have had a dry winter in Oz and maybe the birds are stressed to find food sources. This week I have been seeing seagulls around town here trying to scavenge food from parks and outside fast food stores – and we are a good forty miles or more from the coastline.

  3. Lexx

    The old are moving out and downsizing; their homes are being purchased by 30 and 40 year olds with mortgages I don’t like to think too hard about. The newcomers have less ‘sterile’ ideas about gardening; it’s more ‘garden of eatin’ ‘ and much more diverse overall. We’re no longer the lone hippies on the block. Emphasis on supporting humans and pollinators in these yards, and the birds don’t seem to mind. There’s a feeder (or several) outside every house, townhouse, condo, and patio home, so no feathered friend is starving… but for all the abundance, there seem to be fewer birds this summer. I’ve assumed the bird flu. I’ve countered by keeping the feeders clean and the birdbath fresh. We’ll be pulling everything in next week as we take off for a month or the squirrels will immediately take advantage. They tried to break into the feeders last fall with their teeth… winter was coming… it was a very expensive lesson.

    Today we’ll try to transplant a lemongrass and ginger I’ve had in a pot on the patio all summer. There are plants surviving a Colorado winter where once it was simply too cold and your chances of finding a live plant come spring were zilch. I’ve chosen a spot facing southeast against the house because they will protected from the north winds. Have others here found they can put out more subtropical plants in their northern climate? If you have a moment and a strategy, I’d like to hear about it.

  4. Eclair

    During CoVid, I listened in to a zoom lecture by entomologist Douglas Tallamy, creator of the Homegrown National Park movement. While we think of bird feeders stocked with seeds, he emphasized the importance of juicy bugs and slugs. In the early spring, when the parents of newly hatched baby birds are foraging for food for their voracious offspring, they must secure soft-bodied, easily mushed-up bugs and worms to push into the open mouths. Bugs or seeds with hard shells cannot be digested by the baby birds. So, spraying with pesticides to rid the area of those ‘yucky’ slug-type critters, will cause starvation and death to baby birds. I now look at slugs and think ‘Gerber of the baby bird world.’

    1. Lexx

      Excellent, Eclair. When we moved into this house 21 years ago, we had no problem finding slugs, although they were considerably smaller than those the PNW. Fast forward and I can’t tell you the last time I saw one or even the trail they leave behind.

      How ’bout raw escargot? Also, the earthworms seem numerous and very plentiful. There’s a meal in every shovelful.

  5. Judith

    I am having a cranky week.

    This is not a criticism of the post or the research. But the benefits of Hedgerows have been known for a very long time and conveniently forgotten, no doubt for short-sighted economic reasons.

      1. truly

        I have been very intrigued with the images coming off the battelefield. The hedgerows signify to me not only opportunity for wild life and bio diversity, but evidence of smaller scale family farming. As investor money pours in, equipment gets bigger and hedgerows are removed to make for more “efficient” farming. Odd to think that much of that farmland going to weeds this year will be of some benefit (weed seeds)to the birds there. (And frogs and turtles that need land to be left untilled to survive).
        Here in the US in my childhood, 70s and 80s, there were still hedgerows and farmlanes lined with fruit trees. Where I currently have a gardening endeavor the land (of the surrounding farm) is organic and surrounded by another 1000 acres of “state land”. Much of which is abandoned farmland or in “set aside” programs which create amazing bird habitat. I have never seen so many birds and even more so so many reptiles in my life. Tis a beautiful thing to see nature as she can be at her finest.

  6. Amfortas the Hippie

    for several years…ending a couple of years ago…we had a truly biblical plague of grasshoppers…billions of them, and appearing much earlier than they should.
    second spring into this, i noticed a dramatic lack of birds.
    the swallows, scissortails and other assorted bug eaters were simply not there.
    still had my lizard friends…and my frogs(another edo indicator species)…so i was sure it wasnt anything we had done.
    turns out, the county extension guy had been upselling the hay farmers(who does he work for, again?lol) on some new fangled pesticide for the hayfields(hay, along with grapes, replaced peanuts and wheat out here).
    4 years later, whatever it was was banned…somehow.(i never learned the name of the chemical, since that county extension guy hated me,lol(hippie, organic, etc)
    2 years after that, the birds were all back and the grasshopper plague was over.
    i spent much of that 6 years building birdhouses and sticking them in trees all over…as well as putting out extra scratch for the wild ones all winter.
    I’ll continue with the birdhouse thing…thinking of making it a side gig.
    2 bottle gourd vines over the cowboy pool at the bar have around 90 large bottle gourds on them…suitable for housing wrens, finches, martins, and a bunch of others, depending on the size hole you put in them.
    i also save all the old boots and license plates and make birdhouses out of those…and hollow sections of log, diverted from the woodstove…and all the scrap lumber and siding and whatnot i’ve accumulated,lol.
    even made a few owl houses…and the screech owls moved right in.
    one of those right outside my bedroom, and i listen to them talk when they come home early in the morning.

  7. Bosko

    Anyone with a squirrel problem should just get a squirrel baffle; as long as the feeder is located 10′ or more away from branches or tall shrubs, the squirrels are utterly flummoxed by it. I have plenty of birds here in Maine, but I do supplement with good quality birdseeds (the idea that feeding birds in summer teaches birds to be lazy is a myth), which is known to lead to there being more birds in the area. (My knowledge source is Derek from Freeport Wild Bird Supply, who has written several books on birding. He says that some towns in NB ban feeders due to bear problems, and there will be few birds there as a result, with all the birds navigating to the neighboring towns that allow feeders. So there will be two neighboring towns, one full of birds, one empty of them.) Outdoor cats are considered to be #1 threat to wild birds, but neonicotenoids and other noxious pesticides are also surely a factor.

    Even if you can’t have a feeder for some reason, think about putting up a block of suet. The woodpeckers need to supplement, especially in June, when their fledglings are learning how to fly and feed. I read in Bernd Henrich that 1/3 of all birds rely on dead trees, either for bugs or to nest in, so let those dead trees lie. (By the way my gardens are set up in the style suggested in the article, but I’ll still put out seed, because I love seeing the birds.)

      1. Amfortas the Hippie

        i am bound and determined to finally thin the squirrel herd this fall, whenever it gets cold.
        needed to be done for a few years…and as apex predator, it falls to me.
        same with the raccoons.
        too many of both for the place to support.
        …and the squirrels eat a whole lot of peaches, pears, nectarines.
        ate all the apricots, too…
        and this while i was setting out corn, just for them.
        we’ll have a big squirrel fricassee in the big dutch oven over the fire at the bar one weekend.
        hopefully in Amish Barnraisin Style.
        i dont reckon i’m hungry enough to do a raccoon fricassee just yet…

          1. Jorge

            Then you’ve got an owl on your back, the old Mafia problem. Yeah, they look funny, especially their legs, but they’re mean and vicious.

    1. Lexx

      ‘She was a big-haunched squirrel
      From southern Fort Collins
      You wouldn’t call her small’

      She went right past the baffle and the Slinky below it and we first saw her sitting in the tray stuffing expensive bird seed in her mouth with both little paws. She saw we saw her and heard Husband heading for the patio doors, then she used those muscular haunches so launch herself out of the tray, which she cracked right off, landing in the middle of the yard and bounded for the fence Super Highway and the safety of the fir trees on the other side… giving us lip (the finger) all the way for interrupting her meal.

      Squirrels like that are why we’ll be pulling our feeders in while we’re on vacation. If baffles worked 100% of the time, we could leave them out. But there’s always that one squirrel, new to the neighborhood and probably pregnant… or to be fair with a nutsack so large you wonder if those are a balance issue… who tear down feeders in their aggression. It’s war Bosko, and the tree rats are winning.

  8. Jorge

    We have a grand coincidence in which we:
    * spent a century (1800-1920) exterminating the Passenger Pigeon in the New World, then
    * spent another century (1900-2020) ripping up habitat across the Northern Hemisphere, starving out migratory birds on their journeys, and we
    * had no major pandemics between 1920 and 2020
    ** (except for the late 1950s and late 1960s influenza epidemics, which were unusually virulent)

    Given that migratory birds are known as a major vector of diseases, has there been any solid ecological work done on the possibility that we’ve had no major pandemics since 1920 because we killed all the birds?

  9. playon

    We feel extremely fortunate to be leasing land on a native American reservation which is 90% forested. Unlike our previous residence (in a valley where pesticide use is high) here we have tons of wildlife – deer, coyotes, raccoons, eagles and many other bird species. There is a lot of farming nearby on the flats but many of the places are organic farms that use only natural pesticides.

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