Chris Pecora

Missing Birds

Let's renew the spring chorus.

By Kevin Van Tighem

The deep of winter would be a time of despair were it not for the sure promise of spring. The sky is empty of birds and each dawn is silent and cold. The sun barely rises before it begins again to set. But hope lives on, because we remember previous springs and anticipate the glory of the next one.

As a certified old-timer, I can now look back in memory at 66 springtimes when the world refilled itself with warmth and birdsong. No matter how dark and long the winter nights, there should be no doubt left in my soul. But doubt there is—fear, in fact.

I worry about the missing birds.

Recently I found some scribblers filled with my field notes from the early 1960s. I was an aspiring young naturalist then, thrilled by the diversity of birds that I found during sojourns in the wild edges of a much smaller Calgary. One early June day I stood on the old wooden bridge beside the Shaganappi golf course and peered down into the shrubbery below. I can actually still remember the smell—wolf willows and chokecherries in bloom and the green scents of new leaves—and the amazement I felt at finding birds I’d never imagined lived in my hometown. From that one perch I recorded three veeries, a brown thrasher, two catbirds, six yellow warblers, three least flycatchers, four house wrens and several robins—all singing on newly claimed nesting territories. It was a chaos of birdsong.

Later that month, my notes record a bicycle ride into the farmland near Chestermere Lake. Long-billed curlews and marbled godwits harassed me as I explored relict tracts of native prairie. Horned larks, vesper and savannah sparrows and meadowlarks provided the day’s soundtrack, and I listened, transfixed, as I heard for the first time the thin, descending tinkle of a Sprague’s pipit’s flight song high in the prairie sky. That day’s highlight: two nesting pairs of burrowing owls—right inside the city limits!

Good memories for a cold winter day, and reassurance that when spring once more washes north across the continent it will bring new greenery and migrating birds too. At least it should. The dwindling of hope arises from the shocking reality that many of those birds won’t be coming home this spring.

The same year I recorded all that avian abundance, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning the world about the impact of organochlorine pesticides on bird life. The world listened; DDT and related chemicals have been banned for years. But we’re facing a second, and worse, silent spring today.

A study in the journal Science recently analyzed monitoring data on 529 North American bird species. Some—such as peregrine falcons, white pelicans and others whose populations plummeted in the 1960s because of the effects of DDT—have increased since those poisons were banned. But birds we never dreamed of worrying about are now in trouble. Native sparrows, finches, blackbirds and warblers are simply disappearing. Even barn swallows—which used to nest in every farm outbuilding and under every bridge in the province—are now listed with curlews, pipits and many other species as at risk of disappearing. Burrowing owls are virtually gone from Alberta.

It’s hard to miss the birds you never knew, and that’s perhaps what worries this old-timer most. Nobody under the age of 40 today ever experienced the glorious spring choruses I used to simply take for granted. Abnormal feels normal if it’s all you’ve ever had.

Using poisons to produce food is a truly cockeyed concept. Chemicals so profoundly lethal as neonicotinoids should simply be banned. Totally. Immediately.

But hope is always an option if we’re willing to act. After all, the ban on organochlorines brought back the nearly extinct peregrine. Remember acid rain? Forcing industry to scrub its exhaust gases dialled that problem right down. Once-dead lakes and forests have now recovered. Remember the ozone hole? When we banned chlorofluorocarbons it healed. Bad things needn’t last.

Bird numbers are collapsing for many reasons—outdoor cats, brightly lit high-rises and towers that kill night-flying migrants, habitat loss. But the big culprit, just as it was in the 1960s, is poisoning. Neonicotinoids are a new class of hyper-effective insect poisons aggressively marketed to farmers by the multinationals that profit from them. They kill entire food chains. That’s why some EU countries have banned them and Canada is moving—very slowly—towards tighter regulation.

Using poisons to produce food is a truly cockeyed concept, especially when those toxins kill everything else that makes life worth living. Chemicals so profoundly lethal as neonicotinoids should simply be banned. Totally. Immediately.

Dark thoughts in mid-winter—but not entirely hopeless. The song-filled glory chronicled in my old field notes could be tomorrow’s springtimes too. We just need to stop poisoning the birds.


Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.


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