Bird populations have crashed. Here’s what you can do to help.

The type of trees and shrubs you choose can also make a big difference to birds. Shown is a cedar waxwing eating a chokeberry. (Jane Gamble)
The type of trees and shrubs you choose can also make a big difference to birds. Shown is a cedar waxwing eating a chokeberry. (Jane Gamble)

The arrival finally of some crisp fall weather has gardeners thinking about the winter, a period of retreat in the garden but not of death.

The plants’ withdrawal from the cold invites close examination of the leafless world. But if you need something beyond the display of holly berries, the smooth silver bark and latent buds of the magnolia, or the black silhouette of an old walnut tree, there is another, more vivid reminder that life goes on outdoors. We have the birds.

Or do we?

A study by ornithologists and other scientists released last month told us bird populations have crashed. Since 1970, the United States and Canada have lost nearly 3 billion, close to 30 percent fewer individuals. The losses are across habitats and species, though hardest hit are birds that inhabit the grasslands from Texas north into the Canadian prairie. The suspected causes? Habitat loss, more intensive agriculture and greater use of pesticides that kill the insects birds eat.

A clutch of blue-gray gnat catchers await a meal of insects. (Jane Gamble)
A clutch of blue-gray gnat catchers await a meal of insects. (Jane Gamble) 

For those of us who see the garden not just as a living expression of beauty but a place where we embrace nature, the news is a reminder that we have some power to mitigate this distressing loss. First and foremost, keep the cat indoors. Ask your neighbor to do the same. Cat predation is a major cause of bird mortality, according to the American Bird Conservancy. This is not just from pets but all the alley cats out there, themselves the product of people throwing unwanted, unsterilized felines to the four winds. The cats are the instrument of bird death, but we are the cause.

Songbirds also die in large numbers by flying into windows. If this is a problem where you live, you can attach decals to your glazing. Another tactic is not to use pesticides, even sprays against mosquitoes, a pest best countered by removing sources of standing water, especially in the spring.

A Carolina wren sits on a redbud tree at Mount Vernon; redbuds support numerous insect species. (Jane Gamble)
A Carolina wren sits on a redbud tree at Mount Vernon; redbuds support numerous insect species. (Jane Gamble)

You might think the greatest step you can take for the birds is to feed them. This is, after all, the time of year our thoughts turn to nourishing birds through the chillier months ahead.

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