small royal blue bird, with white breast on moss-covered wood
What's the Buzz?

Update: Why Are the Birds Dying?

If you’re one of the many WFH, who have become a COVID gardener, I want to alert you to an article that popped up in the news a few weeks ago. It was picked up by the Smithsonian magazine folks who ran a story about it in their 9-17-20 issue.

Birds Falling from the Sky

yellow, black, and white warbler dead and laying on gravel

It seems that thousands of “dead migratory birds in the southwestern United States have scientists baffled.” The birds include a variety of species: owls, warblers, hummingbirds, loons, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and others migrating south for the winter.

They are dropping out of the sky, mid-flight, as if they just couldn’t keep going. One scientist described the birds as nothing but feathers and bones. No muscle mass left at all.

The dead birds were first noticed in New Mexico, but the phenomenon has since spread across the Southwest and into at least four Mexican states as well.

Scientists’ hypothesize that loss of food supply due to a cold snap killing off insects could be the cause. Some speculate that perhaps the western fires have created smoke inhalation problems, or forced dangerous changes to the migration route. Others have proposed that the reported loss of insect populations may be creating a general shortage of food for the journey.

So think about it…If you’ve been enjoying the birds visiting your yard this summer, it just might be that they didn’t make it to their winter habitats. Scientists have noted that local birds of the Southwest are not part of the die-off—just the migratory birds.

Get more details here: <a href=”https://bit.ly/2G6iz4V”>”</a&gt;

Notes on the Insect Die-Off

This might lead us naturally to wonder about the die-off of insects as well. Scientists globally have reported that as many as 40 percent of insect species are in decline.

National Geographic gathered this information together in their 2-14-19 article: “Why Insect Populations are Plummeting and Why It Matters.” The first report that shocked even other researchers was a paper published in October 2017 in which scientists reported that “insect abundance…had declined by more than 75 percent within 63 protected areas in Germany—over the course of just 27 years.”

yellow and black orb weaver spider

As alarming as this is, the reports kept coming: “In Puerto Rico, the biomass of insects and other arthropods like spiders had fallen between 10- and 60-fold since the 1970s.”

David Wagner, a professor from the University of Connecticut notes that insects worldwide are understudied. He points out also that populations can fluctuate wildly, and quickly, in response to weather and climate events.

So the apparent conclusion that the problem is due to climate change may not be accurate in every case. Whatever the cause, the die-off is still a major concern.

Wagner muses, “I’m afraid the answer is that it’s death by a thousand cuts.” The draining of wetlands, farmers clearing out wild corners of their fields, climate change, overuse of pesticides: all play a part in the decline.

Get more details here: <a href=”https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/why-insect-populations-are-plummeting-and-why-it-matters/”>https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/why-insect-populations-are-plummeting-and-why-it-matters/</a&gt;

Lessons from the Bottom of the Chain

Of course, we’re all familiar with the global worry about declining bee populations. In addition to the loss of pollinators, loss of other insects will also cause a disastrous chain reaction. They populate the bottom of the food chain by eating every dead plant and animal, thus starting the decomposition process. And many birds rely on insects for food.

This leads us straight back to the migratory birds that did not make it to their winter destinations. The widespread lack of muscle in the birds suggests to this very unscientific writer that the poor things simply ran out of food—insects.

The Top of the Chain Feeds the Bottom

Is there anything we can do about it? There is! The Audubon Society suggests that you not bother raking up all your leaves this Fall. Yippee! LESS work!

For me–and maybe you too–that means we could grind up the leaves with our lawn mower and leave a thick layer of them on the south side where we want to kill the grass. Or anyplace you want to clear out for next season’s planting. During winter, it becomes a place “for bugs and birds to forage for food.” By spring, the grass and all the weeds will be dead—ready for replanting–and in the process, the birds will have a healthy mix of bugs to eat.

Of course, you can also let the leaves lie right where they are. Or if the messiness won’t work in your neighborhood, a compost pile is another way to go. Or grind up the leaves and spread them around your flower beds for the winter. (Just make sure to rake any leaves that haven’t fully decayed by Spring so they aren’t resting against the new growth.)

Don’t Clean Out Your Garden Beds

Also, Audubon recommends that you leave native plants in their beds. Don’t cut them down ‘til Spring. The plants by now have gone to seed and will provide birds with food all winter long. So leave the coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, Joe pye weed, bee balm, and other native plants. They provide food for the little feathery guys and winter birdwatching fun for you.

So that’s the latest buzz from the bird and insect world. Here’s hoping we get our songbirds back next Spring. The best we can do for them is to feed the ones that find their way to our yards and hope that our Southern neighbors do the same.

Get more details about Audubon’s advice here: <a href=”https://bit.ly/33f9Gyz”>https://bit.ly/33f9Gyz</a&gt;

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