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Posts Tagged ‘Bridget Stutchbury’

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Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

I have many plants in my garden that are very popular with bees and other pollinators. Pictured above is a favorite, the perennial Lemon Queen Sunflower (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’), which blooms profusely in late summer.

I reserved one corner of the garden for a few plants that can be a bit unruly, but are beloved by pollinators. I call it Bee Corner. There are an assortment of monarda varieties. Monardas can be a bit rambling, and it is welcome to spread out at will here. There’s also some agastache ‘Black Adder’, which did very well this summer.

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Bee Corner in September

New to the corner are wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and hairy mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum). They’re both North American natives that attract pollinators and have settled in well. Next year, they can take engage in a turf war with the monardas.

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Wild Quinine

All comers can feast without fear of poisoning. I never use pesticides of any kind on my plants. The plants are all strictly on their own, thrive or die, and mostly, they thrive.

Lately, Colony Collapse Disorder has been in the news, and the rise in the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and fungicides is suspected as a contributing cause. The jury is still out on the exact causes of honey bee die-offs and because of their economic importance, honey bees are getting a lot of attention. One thing is for certain though. It’s not just honey bees that are affected by rampant pesticide use.

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Clearwing Hummingbird Moth at Monarda

As Bridget Stutchbury points out in Silence of the Songbirds, the banning of DDT didn’t end the threat of pesticides to species such as birds:

We are as hooked on pesticides today as we were in the 1960s, when, in her seminal book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned us of the rain of poison that was bringing death to our waters and killing thousands of birds…. In many ways, birds are in greater danger today than in the 1950s because modern pesticides are more lethal. Older OC pesticides (organochlorines, fat soluble pesticides that can be stored in the fatty tissues of animals) were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by “safer” pesticides like organophosphates and carbamates. These pesticides are safer because they break down within a few days and are not stored in the body, and so do not accumulate in the food chain. But many, like monocrotophos, are vastly more toxic to birds (and people) than were the OC pesticides. Modern insecticides are designed to kill their target swiftly and then break down before “non-target” animals come into contact with the poison. This is easier said than done. Birds can be exposed to these insecticides via direct contact with sprayed plants, by eating insects and fruits in areas that have been recently sprayed, or by eating pesticides that are applied to the ground in the form of granules….We have traded persistence for toxicity.

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Hairy Mountain Mint

Many insecticides are lethal to birds because they are neurotoxins and interfere with the nerve impulses inside the bodies of animals. They disrupt the signal that must jump from neuron to neuron via chemical messengers, causing severe shaking, then paralysis and asphyxiation. Pesticides that are effective in killing insects are also very toxic to birds and other animals, including humans.

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Agastache ‘Black Adder’

You can help reduce the use of agricultural pesticides by buying organic foods. You may feel that buying organic items such as bananas is not worthwhile because you peel the bananas anyway. But by buying organic bananas you support the reduction of the pesticide burden where the bananas were grown. You can also step more lightly on the land by buying other earth-friendly products such as shade-grown coffee. For more on threats to birds and ways you can make a difference, Silence of the Songbirds is a great read.

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Bee Corner in August

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Last Sunday, these two Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) youngsters got their first view of the big, wide world. They were hatched in the pouch-like nest that their parents had built high in the outermost branches of a tree near the river. A dead branch allowed a pretty clear view of the high nest for we who are earthbound. One chick has moved out onto a branch, while a second is sitting at the edge of the nest. Orioles usually produce a clutch of 4 or 5 eggs, so another chick or two may still be in the nest, or perhaps have already set out.

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Like most songbirds, oriole chicks have closed eyes and are hairless when they hatch. Such hatchlings are termed altricial. However, in one of nature’s many miracles, the chicks grow to close to the size of their parents and are fully feathered , ready to leave the nest and fly, in just 12 to 14 days! The parents will continue to feed the youngsters insects for a few days until they master flight and learn to find their own food. In the photo above, you can see the fledgling begging, whirring its wings and chirring to the parent, waiting to be fed.

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Many songbirds raise two, or sometimes even 3 broods, or families, each summer and parents must work very hard to provide for their young. Sadly, many songbirds live short lives and die tragic deaths. These youngsters will have to contend with widespread habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, cats, windows, lights, towers, and other disasters-in-waiting ready to take their toll. These challenges are causing a slow but steady decline in songbird populations across the continent. In the last 3 to 4 decades, the songbird population has fallen by a horrifying 20 to 30%. How long will it be before, as Rachel Carson forecast, we face a silent spring? An excellent source of more information is Bridget Stutchbury’s book, Silence of the Songbirds, which I reviewed here. Some ways that you can help to protect songbirds are listed here:

How To Save A Songbird

Buy shade-grown coffee that is both organic and fairly-traded.

Buy organic produce

Avoid non-organic North American crops such as alfalfa, Brussel sprouts,blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Buy unbleached, recycled paper products

Turn off the lights at night in city buildings and homes during peak migration periods

Keep your cat indoors

oriol4

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The property neighbouring ours doesn’t have a house on it. It is agricultural land used for growing corn and soybeans, with the exception of one odd little patch of forest. The few acres of trees form a little island in the midst of a sea of corn. The soybean crop has been harvested, but the corn is still standing.

A drainage system underlies the land and empties into a rather impressive ditch that borders the fields, eventually emptying into our little river. The water level in the river can change dramatically in heavy rain, no doubt in part due to the artificially accelerated rate of drainage of water from the soil. I took a walk along the ditch to take a look at the forest island, now that the soybeans have been harvested and a path along the edge of the field is clear.

It is composed mostly of impressive Red Pines (Pinus resinosa). They may have formed part of a plantation at one time, but if so, the straight-row pattern that is usually easy to see wasn’t evident. It seems strange that this one little patch of trees, a few acres worth, has been left untouched. I would like to think that they were saved for their majestic beauty, but it seems more likely that plans to harvest the timber will follow at some time in the future. Although the pines predominate, there is also a sprinkling of small maples and beech, now leafless. Around the edge of the forest fragment is a narrow ribbon of birch trees.

CORRECTION: Thanks to Tony for letting me know that the trees are actually Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris)! They were planted about 35 years ago as a Christmas Tree plantation, but never harvested. As the trees were planted close together in anticipation of a harvest in 6 to 8 years, they grew to be rather spindly when they exceeded their “best before” date as Christmas trees. A number fell over and were otherwise lost, so the remaining stand represents the survivors. They appear to be doing very well.

If I had paid more attention to the cache of cones I came across, I might have done a better job of identifying these trees. Scots Pines are popular as Christmas trees because of their shape and good needle retention, while their fast growth habit and good response to shaping makes them popular with growers. They were one of the first tree species to be introduced to North America. John Laird Farrar notes in Trees in Canada that in Europe the Scots Pine is a tall, straight tree with wood of excellent quality. In North America, the trunks are seldom straight (although I would have to say most of the trees in this stand were pretty straight) and the wood quality is poor owing to the seed source chosen by early settlers. The trees can live in the range of 150 to 300 years, so this stand is still young.

Up until a couple of hundred years ago, most of eastern North America was covered in forest. Now, in eastern Ontario, in the Ottawa region, forest cover is only 13 percent in some areas, and the remaining forest is highly fragmented, a few acres here, a few acres there.

Fragments are not good habitat for birds. Forest fragmentation increases nest predation by a stunning list of predators. Skunks, opossums, and raccoons hunt at night. Snakes, chipmunks, even deer, are not averse to a tasty egg when the opportunity arises. Other birds such as blue jays and crows will rob nests of eggs and nestlings. Cats take a huge toll on the bird population. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and their larger chicks often survive at the expense of the host’s own young. Predation is higher in forest fragments than in continuous forest. One study found in suburban woodlots, about 70% of nests suffer predation. In rural woodlots, it’s about 50%. Other studies have found different rates, but all found that nests in fragments suffer more predation than nests in continuous forest cover.

Fragments are population sinks. That is, more birds are killed over the breeding season than are replaced by new youngsters, resulting in a net loss to the population. The birds that nest in fragments are like a steady trickle of water going down the drain. Large forests are usually population sources because breeding success is relatively high. For example, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the largest national park in the eastern United States, has more than 200,000 hectares of continuous forest. Some 10,000 nesting pairs of wood thrush produce a surplus of almost three thousand females each year beyond the number required to replace the breeding females who have died.

Fragmentation of habitat is one of the reasons the songbird population is crashing. To read more about fragmentation and other songbird issues, check out Dr. Bridget Stutchbury’s book Silence of the Songbirds.

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Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World’s Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them, by Bridget Stutchbury. HarperCollins, 2007.

Every fall, we northern dwellers are accustomed to “our” birds leaving our cold, snowy winter behind and flying south. This seems like a very sensible thing to do, and if we think of them at all, it is probably to imagine the birds on vacation, soaking up the rays in the Neotropics. Far from being on holiday, birds that migrate south face a difficult season. They must compete with other birds for habitat that will keep them fed and allow them to build up the reserves they will need for the flight north and a new breeding season. Increasingly, their lives are imperiled by the destruction of the rainforest as more and more trees are replaced with agricultural fields. Other threats include the heavy use of pesticides that can result in mass poisonings. When they return north with the spring, life is no easier, with widespread habitat loss, cats, windows, lights, towers, and other disasters-in-waiting ready to take their toll.

Birds are amazing creatures, little more, it would seem, than sparks of life wrapped in feathers. What incredible lives they live! However, the ever-increasing challenges that songbirds must face, both in the north and the south, are causing a slow but steady decline in songbird populations across the continent. In the last 3 to 4 decades, the songbird population has fallen by a horrifying 20 to 30%. Songbirds are a vital part of the ecosystem. They perform irreplaceable services that we humans count on, from insect control to spreading plant seeds. The fading away of the songbird population is a symptom of the deep wound we have inflicted on the natural world. If they go, will we be next?

Bridget Stutchbury is a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, and a fellow and research associate at the Smithsonian Institute. She and her husband have devoted their careers to the study of songbirds. In Silence of the Songbirds, Stutchbury takes the reader with her as she looks at songbirds in their winter homes. She explains the science behind songbird studies and tools such as the Breeding Bird Survey. She examines the many threats that songbirds face. Finally, she offers the reader a list of solutions, how everyone can contribute to halting the decline of songbird populations. Anyone who has ever looked for the first robin of spring or enjoyed the sound of a bird singing in the yard will want to read this book. Understanding the problem is the first step in finding solutions.

How To Save A Songbird

Buy shade-grown coffee that is both organic and fairly-traded.

Buy organic produce

Avoid non-organic North American crops such as alfalfa, Brussel sprouts,blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Buy unbleached, recycled paper products

Turn off the lights at night in city buildings and homes during peak migration periods

Keep your cat indoors

For more on these issues, see these posts:

Every Cat an Indoor Cat

Natural Born Killers

Organic Food is For the Birds

Climate Change and the Boreal Forest

Shade the Coffee, Shelter the Birds

For more on the use of pesticides on potatoes in North America, see Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, reviewed on November 23.

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Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) catching insects on the wing.

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Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)

Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)

With International Migratory Bird Day this weekend, the Globe and Mail featured an editorial about the decline of Boreal breeding birds today. The editorial is signed by Bridget Stutchbury, biology professor at York University and author of Silence of the Songbirds, Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, and Jeff Wells, director of science and policy for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. You can read the letter at TheGlobeandMail.com.

International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD), celebrated on the second Saturday in May, marks the height of the migratory season and celebrates the astounding journeys of millions of birds who travel thousands of miles from wintering grounds in the south to their northern breeding grounds. Their journeys are fraught with peril and many fall along the way. Every year, fewer migratory birds return. Now the Boreal forests so many breeding birds depend on are increasingly exploited and developed by industry. The populations of migratory birds are suffering one of the most precipitous declines of any animal group on earth. To raise awareness of the plight of migratory birds and celebrate their spring return, IMBD is celebrated in Canada, the United States and Mexico with bird walks and festivals. You can learn more about IMBD, including events near you at Nature Canada or Birdday.org.

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