Citizen Science and Birds
Toronto Star column – published April 20, 2013
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
As I write this column from my home office, I am keenly aware of dozens of visitors in my back yard. My nine bird-feeding stations are in clear view and they are very popular today. Juncos, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, a European grackle, and a mom and dad cardinal are all gorging themselves like they have not seen food all winter. From time to time a blue jay arrives to scoop up an unshelled peanut, cawing an announcement to his buddies that there is a feast to be had at the Cullen’s place this morning.
There is barely a hobby gardener in this country who does not consider themselves an amateur birder also. That is not to say that all gardeners feed the birds intentionally, but we do have an inherent appreciation for the qualities that they bring to the outdoor experience.
Birds find the work of the gardener helpful even when that is not our primary intent. Plants provide protection, nesting areas, and, of course, natural sources of food for native birds. A garden pond provides a drink, a bath, and for some bird species another source of food.
Condo and apartment dwellers should not feel left out. A balcony garden can provide all the aforementioned benefits regardless of how high up you reside.
All of this is to say that the North American Bird Conservation Initiative or NABCI has released the first ever publication entitled ‘The State of Canada’s Birds’ and it makes for fascinating reading. Hardly a heavy tome, this 34-page document is lushly illustrated with bird pictures and is organised in such a way that you will get the gist while reading it over your lunch hour.
The State of Canada’s Birds is based on the accumulation of bird survey results from over 40 years. We need this information not only to understand the rise and fall of bird populations for its own sake, but also to measure the effects of climate change and human activity on birds in North America. Armed with this knowledge, we can make changes to our behaviour that affect the outcome of native bird health and population growth. Indeed, we have already made huge strides in our efforts to bring back from the brink of extinction such birds as the Bald Eagle, the Whooping Crane, and many raptors [i.e., hawks, falcons, eagles, osprey, and vultures]. The study states, “[S]ince the banning of chemicals such as DDT in the early 1970s…Ospreys and Bald Eagles have doubled or tripled in population. Thanks in part to some intense efforts at captive breeding; many major Canadian cities now have Peregrine Falcons nesting on skyscrapers and bridges. These recoveries are testament to the power of strong controls on key environmental pollutants and hands-on management of endangered species to improve the plight of birds.”Here are some highlights from the study:
– One of the greatest declines in bird population is among ‘insectivores’: insect-eating fliers like swallows and flycatchers
– Since 1970, Canada’s bird population has declined by 10%
– Waterfowl, chickadees, woodpeckers, and raptors have increased in population
– Reductions in environmental pollution in Southern Ontario are reflected in increases in bird population [so we can make a difference!]
– Some duck populations have increased by more than 50% [Canada geese populations by more than that: surprise!]
The study recommends that individual Canadians can make a difference to our bird population by supporting bird-friendly agriculture, fishery, and forestry practices – shade grown coffee, range-fed meat, sustainable seafood and fish, and sustainable forestry products. It also helps to reduce our resource consumption, increase recycling, take public transit or bicycle to work. In short, reducing greenhouse gas emissions ultimately helps to benefit wild birds.
Bird Studies Canada
Bird Studies Canada [BSC], the lead charitable organisation of its kind in this country, has been tracking birds for decades through various national bird counts, thanks to its members who are people just like you and me. Each Christmas, for example, birders count birds by species and report the numbers back to the organisation electronically or by sending them in by post. Over 80% of the birds counted are sighted in back yards and on feeding stations. BSC uses information from the Christmas Bird Count and other Citizen Science programs to monitor bird populations and gain an understanding of trends and conservation priorities.
Every May, Bird Studies Canada organises one of the largest birdathons in the world and the oldest in North America: the Baillie Birdathon. Participants are sponsored to count as many bird species as they can in a 24-hour period. You can hike the Bruce trail, take a walk through a local conservation area or park, or you can sip coffee from your porch while watching your bird feeders. Some Birdathoners even conduct counts while vacationing in other countries. The money raised is invested in Canadian research and conservation efforts for native birds.
Tommy Thompson Park
Here in Toronto we are fortunate to have one of the best birding areas in the province right in our front yard. Located at the foot of Leslie Street, just south of the allotment gardens and just when you might assume that you cannot go any further south without landing in LakeOntario, you arrive at TommyThompsonPark. This is a manmade marvel of monstrous proportions: a land fill project that started in the early ‘70’s when the large bank towers were being built in the financial district. The clean fill that was dug for the foundations and underground parking lots for those monoliths provided the foundation for this unique park.
TommyThompsonPark, which is named after a famous Toronto parks commissioner, stands up to the integrity of its name sake. As they say on the BSC website, “The geographical situation of the park and also its natural features make it very suitable for large numbers of migrating birds, butterflies, and nesting colonial waterbirds. TommyThompsonPark has been designated as an Environmentally Significant Area (ESA) and was selected as a globally Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International in 2001.”
As the Celebrity Birder [using the term loosely], I am looking forward to my day of birding with David Love, Jody Allair, and other experienced birders on May 14th at Tommy Thompson Park. We will be raising much needed funds for Bird Studies Canada that day and I will no doubt be learning a thing or two about our native bird species from people who eat, drink, and breathe birds every day.
I would be delighted if you would sponsor me. The first $5,000 raised will be matched by a generous donor who does not wish to be named. Just go to my website at www.markcullen.com and click on the Baillie Birdathon hot link to find my sponsor page. While there, consider raising funds for BSC by participating in the Birdathon yourself. By doing so you will not only benefit Canada’s native bird population but you will no doubt learn a few things about birds that will illuminate your outdoor experience. Go to www.birdscanada.org for details.
The birds that feed at your feeder will take on a whole new meaning.
Question of the Week
Q/ Can I prune a tropical hibiscus at this time of year? I brought it indoors for the winter and it’s taking over the kitchen.
A/ You can give a tropical hibiscus a hard pruning this time year. Remove up to 1/3 of the overall size. This will create a more compact plant and encourage a new flush of growth.