There once was a time when I could not quite understand birdwatchers. What did these people get from watching tiny blurs of color flitting through trees? Don’t get me wrong, I have always liked birds, always had bird feeders in my yard. But I never really understood the fascination with birds. In the past few years, however, I too have become captivated with these fascinating creatures.
Birds are the nomads of the animal world, ceaselessly traveling with the change in seasons. It must be the burden they carry for the gift of flight.
While some birds remain in one area throughout the year, most are condemned to constantly follow their food source.
In the fall, as the climate gets cooler, birds who feed exclusively on insects, fruit or pollen must migrate to the more temperate climates of South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
As spring returns to North America, so do the birds — following their food sources — back to their breeding grounds.
More than 360 species of birds make this annual migration including songbirds (warblers, thrushes, tanagers and vireos), shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers and terns), some raptors (hawks, kites and vultures), and a few waterfowl (teal).
Some of these birds are common —the American robin, Eastern bluebird, ruby-throated hummingbird, gray catbird, purple martin, barn swallow and chimney swift. Others, such as the red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager, wood thrush and Cape May warbler, may be familiar only to bird watchers.
The importance of migratory birds cannot be overlooked. Birds are our best natural insect control, eating tons of bugs annually.
As green leaves emerge each spring, so do millions of caterpillars and insects. Coinciding with this event, an array of birds, like orioles, vireos, flycatchers, warblers and swallows, return to North America and feast upon the abundant insects.
Birds are important economically, too. Americans devote a great deal of time and money to bird watching. According to the 1996 National Survey of Fishing Hunting, and Wildlife-associated Recreation, almost 63 million Americans participated in wildlife watching activities. Seventy-five percent of wildlife watchers traveled to see birds. At home, 96 percent of the respondents were bird watching.
All of these activities generate money through sales and services such as travel, lodging and meals. Americans spent $29 billion on wildlife watching activities. Of that, $17 billion was spent on equipment, $9 billion on trip-related expenses and $3 billion on other items.
But their importance to our environment and economy, has not prevented many bird species from declining.This is due to the loss of their habitats as large tracts of fields, forests and wetlands are disappearing for development.
Today, many birds must nest in smaller, fragmented habitats. This leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation by other birds, such as blue jays and crows, and mammals, such as raccoons and cats.
Fewer chicks survive to replace adults killed by natural causes, such as surviving the perilous winter and spring migrations between North and Central or South America.
Although public lands like refuges and parks are extremely important to migrating birds, they alone cannot provide the habitat that birds need.
Nationwide, 71 percent of the land is privately owned. Private land is almost equally divided between range, forest, crops, pasture and other land uses.
Private landowners can restore, enhance or protect habitats beneficial to birds and other wildlife while still keeping their current use.
State and federal wildlife agencies have many programs to assist landowners with habitat enhancement projects.
Contact your state wildlife agency or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program for information about habitat for birds and other wildlife.
People who don’t own large areas of land can still help:
- Create Backyard Habitat: By planting native vegetation, homeowners can provide badly needed food and cover for birds and other wildlife. Plant a variety of trees, shrubs and plants and remember to provide a source of water.
- Try Shade-Grown Coffee: Wintering habitats in Central and South America are also being altered. If you’re a coffee lover, consider buying shade-grown coffee. Coffee grown on clear-cut plantations destroys critical wintering habitat for migratory birds.
- Keep Cats Indoors: There are at least 68 million pet cats in the United States. Birds make up 20–30 percent of outdoor cats’ prey. Cat owners can reduce the number of birds maimed and killed simply by keeping their cats indoors.
- Reduce Chemical Use: Pesticides are often harmful for birds. While pesticides are intended to control specific pests, some harm or kill non-target species. Contact your state university’s cooperative extension service for more information about low impact solutions to pest problems.