by Connie Oswald Stofko
Have you noticed that you haven’t had as many birds at your bird feeder lately? The cause is simple: lack of snow.
Something you probably didn’t notice is that the number of birds in North America is down by almost 3 billion birds since 1970. That’s a big concern, but there are things that gardeners can do to help.
No birds at your feeder?
A reader left this comment on a previous article:
I live in the Amherst/Eggertsville area and have been feeding the birds for years. Over the last six months, the number of birds have been declining and over the last several weeks, there are no birds at all except for a few black birds. My next-door neighbor commented on the same thing. I just get a few squirrels. Does anyone know what’s happening?
I thought this was odd, so I asked an expert what might be happening.
Of course, a lot of birds have left the area for the winter, said Tom Kerr, naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society. But it’s snow– or lack of it– that’s the reason Hendricks isn’t seeing as many birds as she would expect at this time of year.
“It was the same at Beaver Meadow,” Kerr said. The number of birds visiting feeders was light “until we got 18 inches of snow” last week. That band of heavy snow missed northern Erie County.
Birds enjoy other food sources, such as berries and insects, he explained. They can still find dormant insects under leaves.
“Most birds use feeders for only part of their diet, even in summer,” Kerr said.
When the bare areas of Western New York get some snow, expect to see more birds at your feeders.
Number of birds down by 3 billion
North America is home to nearly three billion fewer birds today compared to 1970—that’s more than 1 in 4 birds that have disappeared from the landscape, according to an Audubon article.
“This is something that is hard to see year to year,” Kerr said. “It’s been happening gradually over the past 50 years.”
Birds can’t depend on our feeders alone. They need insects, he said, especially caterpillars to feed their young. (Butterflies and moths are insects; caterpillars are a younger stage of butterflies and moths.) So if we want birds, we need to protect insects.
“We’ve taken away insects’ habitat,” he said. “Forests, grasslands and wetlands have been taken over by homes, malls and factories.
“If we help insects, we help birds.”
In addition to habitat loss, factors that affect insects and, in turn, birds are pollution and pesticides. Scientists, with the help of citizens, are also looking at the effects of climate change on birds.
How gardeners can help birds
When you plant native plants, you provide habitat for the insects that birds eat. Kerr contrasted the Norway maple, a non-native tree, with native oaks.
“Insects don’t recognize the Norway maple as food,” he said, “so it will always look nice.” Unfortunately, it won’t provide any food for birds.
A native oak, on the other hand, provides a welcoming habitat for hundreds of kinds of butterflies and other insects. The oak “may have chewed-up leaves, but that’s a sign of life!” he said.
Here are some places to find out what plants are native to our area:
- Western New York Guide to Native Plants for your Garden produced by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.
- Audubon native plants for birds. You can put in your Zip Code to get a list for your area.
- Erie County native plants list on the site of WNY Native Plants Collaborative.
Use pesticides only when you absolutely have to.
Remember that even if pesticides are organic, such as neem oil, they can kill beneficial insects in addition to the pests you are targeting. Always follow the directions carefully.
Decrease pollution in your garden
Stop using a gas mower, mow less often and turn some of your lawn into garden. These are some ways to cut down pollution in your garden.
Small steps for climate change
According to Audubon’s 2019 climate change report, Survival By Degrees, up to two-thirds of North American birds are vulnerable to extinction due to climate change. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to protect birds. Just starting the conversation can help.
Also check out our Events page for activities to count birds and learn more about them.