On The Street

A Symphony Fills the Woods with Bird Song: Why Birds Are Crucial to the Ecosystem

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

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By Michael Gold

The trees are alive with the sound of birds.

We heard a bird make a kind of “meow.” (It’s called a cat bird, no surprise why.) The yellow warbler just flew in from the Caribbean and immediately announced itself with a “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet,” call, even though it was exhausted from the trip.

The mourning dove goes “hoo, hoo, hoo,” sounding like it’s hyperventilating. The yellow-bellied sapsucker drills holes in trees, sucks the sap, then when ants and other insects approach to eat the sap themselves, the sapsucker might eat them too. Very clever.

We heard a bark.

“That’s a dog,” our guide, land trust consultant Jim Nordgren joked.

The Putnam County Land Trust’s “Breakfast with the Birds” program offered a hike through its Ice Pond property early on Saturday, May 6 with the morning light falling through the trees, displaying bright green leaves reaching for the sun, their tops waving in a gentle breeze.

A rich variety of birds serenaded our group of 20 with a symphony of sounds, as we tramped through wetland, swamp and woods.

The ovenbird makes a nest like, you guessed it, an oven and yells out something that sounds like, “Teacher, teach, teacher!” The house wren will make a nest in your mouth if you happen to fall asleep in a hammock and you let your face go slack for long enough, Nordgren said, only half-joking.

I asked Nordgren why birds sing. He wrote me in an e-mail, “…they mainly sing in the springtime and then it is to attract a mate and at the same time to advertise to other birds that this is their territory, to fend off other birds. At other times of the year, birds mostly have ‘calls,’ versus ‘songs’ and the calls are to keep the flock together as they search for food and/or to alert other birds to threats from predators.”

He also provided a brief tutorial on the local wildlife and some plants we encountered and why they’re important.

For instance, poison ivy, which many people bitterly hate because it can plant a nasty rash on your skin, grows berries that provide fat for birds to fly on their lengthy migrations each spring.

The blueberry flower provides pollen and nectar for insects and the plant’s blueberries offer food for birds and other wildlife.

Also, “Violets get no respect, but they’re great for pollinators, such as bees and butterflies,” Nordgren said. The bees and the butterflies help spread the pollen to other plants so they can reproduce.

“Deer have been a disaster for the forest; they eat everything,” Nordgren said.

Nature has come up with its own merciless solutions to the challenge of unimpeded deer reproduction in the Northeast over the last decades, he explained. Coyotes have bred with wolves and become bigger. They will attack baby deer left alone when their mothers go foraging, as will bears and bobcats.

Nordgren told the group of the severe threats facing North American birds, including climate change. Their numbers have declined by about 50 percent since 1960.

“Current evidence indicates that these species are moving poleward in response to milder winters and reforestation of agricultural lands in the Northeast and Upper Midwest,” Frank LaSorte, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which studies birds and wildlife conservation, explained to me in an e-mail.

So, the good news for the birds, and us, is that we’ve gotten more woodlands here. But LaSorte wrote, “Currently for birds that breed in North America, one of the most significant adverse consequences of climate change are phenological (seasonal cycle) mismatches. Here, as temperatures warm, the timing of breeding and migration activities are no longer synchronized with seasonal changes in ecological productivity, which can interfere with survival and reproduction. If climate change continues unabated, these disruptions will be amplified as natural systems adjust to the formation of novel climates, creating adverse conditions for both birds and humans.”

Birds may not possess graduate degrees in environmental science, but they know what some still deny – the climate is getting warmer. They can feel it.

Why should humans care about this? Pat Leonard, spokesperson for the Cornell Lab, wrote “Birds perform what we call ‘ecosystem services.’ Some birds are pollinators, some birds are seed dispersers, and overall, they are a bellwether for the health of the same environment we all depend on. If the environment is too poor for birds to survive in, it’s not going to do much good for humans either,” she explained.

One way we can keep birds around is to donate money to the Putnam County Land Trust, the Westchester Land Trust or the Nature Conservancy to purchase and preserve bird habitats as much possible.

They need our help, and we need them.

Pleasantville-based writer Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times Union, The Virginian-Pilot, The Palm Beach Post and other newspapers, and The Hardy Society Journal, a British literary journal.

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