Status report on bird populations

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Why are some birds in these parts thriving while others are declining or have disappeared altogether? Two species of crows occur in Lee and surrounding counties, the Common Crow and the slightly smaller Fish Crow. Both are as abundant now as they ever have been. Fish Crows were the first to become urban “yard birds,” at a time when Common Crows seldom inhabited urban areas. Both species are remarkably intelligent, and it’s not beyond belief that when Common Crows began observing their smaller relatives on residential lawns and around fast-food establishments, they thought to themselves, “If those guys can adapt to city life, then we can too,” which they did.
Other birds doing well include Mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Goldfinches, both species of vultures, and notably, Red-shouldered Hawks. Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers are common, and Pileated Woodpeckers are frequently seen. Alabama’s state bird, The Yellow-shafted Flicker, or Yellowhammer, has declined somewhat but regularly occurs. Red-headed Woodpeckers have become rare since utility companies began treating their poles with creosote. When untreated poles were being used, almost half would have Red-headed Woodpecker nesting holes.
Breeding birds formerly abundant around urban settings were Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers, and to a lesser extent, Catbirds. I call these birds “brush birds,” because they spend much of their time under shrubbery often planted adjacent to house foundations. Towhees have declined significantly as have Brown Thrashers. Catbirds are now exceedingly rare. I suspect much of the declines in these birds is attributable to toxic pesticides being applied to and underneath shrubbery. The chemicals kill the insects the birds rely on for food, and quite likely kill the birds as well. Any premises around which house cats prowl are unlikely to have many brush birds. House cats are notorious for preying on the birds and their young. Another brush bird that has declined is an over-wintering migrant, the White-throated Sparrow. Years ago the plaintive whistling notes of this bird were often heard, usually during morning hours.
The disappearance of Common Nighthawks, aka bull bats, as breeding residents in open rural  areas is unfortunate, as is that of Eastern Meadowlarks. The beginning of the end of these birds was the invasion of red imported fire ants, which doubtless preyed heavily on the helpless young of these ground-nesters. Many authorities believe fire ant predation was a major reason for the decline in Bobwhite Quail populations.
Some other birds that have declined significantly include Woodcocks, American Kestrels, aka sparrow hawks, Loggerhead Shrikes, Kentucky Warblers, and Wood Thrushes. Ornithologists estimate that in the past 30 years, Woodcocks have declined by 52 percent, and Kestrels by 66 percent between 1966 and 2014. Woodcocks require shrub habitat and open fields for food and shelter, both of which are in short supply. Kestrels and Shrikes rely heavily on large insects, especially grasshoppers, for food, and these insects are far less numerous than they once were.
Kentucky Warblers and Wood Thrushes are believed by many to be declining as a  result of deteriorating conditions in the tropical regions where they spend the winter.
Finally, one bird that until recently regularly visited my feeder but no longer does is the cute little Brown-headed Nuthatch. Some authorities contend that the problems facing these birds is a shortage of dead trees and snags they use to construct their nest cavities. But I have an abundance of these on my property, so there must be some other reason why I’m no longer seeing the birds. Stay tuned.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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