By now, well into spring, all of our songbirds have returned to Essex and surrounding fields and woodlands, many of them having spent the last six or seven months in Central or South America.
Songbird Populations Decline
Migratory songbirds are less bountiful than they were decades ago, for reasons not entirely understood but almost certainly including fragmentation of the forests here on their breeding grounds and in their Neotropical winter homes. The diminishment of songbird populations, the Silent Spring Rachel Carson warned us about half a century ago, is a tragedy that our generation ought to reverse, through preserving and reconnecting wildlands, reducing pollution, and restoring apex predators.
If we look carefully around our homes in the Eastern Deciduous Forest biome, we see the consequences of cutting apart natural habitats, consequences that weigh especially on forest-nesting songbirds. Some biologists call these “edge effects”, and they include:
- invasions by exotic species;
- extermination of top carnivores like Cougar and wolves, which eat or chase away smaller predators but do not trouble songbirds;
- consequent proliferation of opportunistic predators, like house cats and skunks, which do prey on birds and their eggs;
- colonization of forest edges by cowbirds, which are brood parasites (laying their eggs in nests of smaller birds);
- and altered micro-climates (forest edges being susceptible to desiccation, fire, and wind-throw).
Songbirds’ Merrier Mysteries
Happier, more natural mysteries continue to surround songbirds, though:
- How do they migrate thousands of miles each spring and autumn between tropical rainforest and temperate deciduous forest? (Present hypotheses credit birds’ uncanny senses of direction, magnetism, and ability to navigate by the stars.)
- How do they fly so far so efficiently? (I probably burn more calories riding from Essex village to my cabin than a warbler burns flying from the Adirondacks to Central America.)
- Where do they hide their nests? (Many nest on leafy ground or in the forest understory, hence their vulnerability to opportunistic meso-predators.)
- What do they eat? (Many dine primarily on insects, making them beneficial to us not only for their music but also for keeping “pest” populations in check.)
- And maybe the most vexing songbird mystery for birders: where is the maker of that avian melody?! (Whether it’s an evolutionary adaptation on the birds’ part, or just our inferior hearing, or both, songbirds are usually hard to locate, after leaf-out in May, even when their songs are near and clear.)
Split Rock Wildway Songbirds
My family so enjoys seeing and hearing songbirds that we’re protecting our hundred acres of Adirondack forest as a wildlife sanctuary and as part of a wildlife corridor locally known as Split Rock Wildway.
Rewards this spring included Winter Wrens bubbling out that most joyful of tiny birds’ songs; Scarlet Tanagers flashing red between tall hardwoods and singing a blues-style robin’s song; Blackburnian Warblers revealing spots of blaze orange and whistling high out of sight; Rose-breasted Grosbeaks warbling with a liquid clarity that allows us to spot its hot pink chest; and those master flutists, Wood and Hermit Thrush and Veery, sounding like the most sonorous solo vocalists you seldom see.
What songbirds have you noticed in these early days of summer?[Special thanks to Larry Master (www.masterimages.org) who graciously contributed these spectacular photographs.]
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Migrant Songbirds (robcriswellphoto.wordpress.com)
- Conservation of boreal forest a must for our backyard songbirds, report says (thestar.com)
- How to see North American songbirds migrating (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- United States songbirds migrate with the wind, new study (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Oil, Natural Gas Development Affects Forest Songbirds (dailyfusion.net)