EVEN THE COMMON BIRDS ARE RARER


1 September 2021 

The mountain-ash berries are a brilliant red-orange color now, and are hanging from the trees in heavy clusters. It’s almost time for the robins to arrive by the hundreds, to animate the greenery in their eagerness to strip this year’s crop as quickly as possible. It’s almost time for them to arrive…  But they won’t.

   What I’m picturing is a scene from the 1980s, or maybe the early 1990s – a guaranteed show for a few days or a week, as the robins arrived en masse to harvest the berries.  The trees are still here; the berries look just as appealing; but there won’t be any fluttering hordes, this year. There weren’t any last year, or the year before, or any time in the last decade or two.

    I don’t know when the robins quit coming in large numbers. Sometimes, Change has been happening for a long time before we become aware that things are different. One wouldn’t be surprised by a winter when only a few pine siskins graced your bird feeders, compared to the usual hundreds. Siskins are an “irruptive” species, with boom and bust years, due to breeding success or changes in migration patterns influenced by weather or food supplies. Similarly, it might not be unusual for a Spring to pass with no conspicuous flights of warblers and vireos stopping in your trees. Migration often varies in timing and location. It may not be until the third, fourth, or even sixth or seventh, year that it dawns on you that it’s been a long time since the siskins have come, since you’ve seen the “usual” warblers and vireos in spring – or since the robins have descended on the mountain-ash crop.

   Robins are not the only birds in lesser numbers in the 21st Century. In Canada and the United States, some 60 percent of the species have decreased in numbers, some of them significantly. There isn’t just one cause – cutting and burning of the Central and South American forests where many of our birds go in the winter; tremendous losses in the insect populations that many birds depend on for food; climate change making some areas inhabitable, with no suitable habitats available to take their place; and on and on. Taken together, it’s one of the many ecological crises we face for which we don’t have a cure. We’re not at the point yet at which our “non-endangered” list is shorter than our “endangered” list, but we’re headed in that direction.

   In recent years, nearly all of my “birding” has involved what flies in and  out of my back yard. I’m not out there with the active bird enthusiasts, so I don’t know what motivates them. I would think that seeking birds wouldn’t be as interesting as it once was. Still, the younger generations seem to have as much enthusiasm for the sport as I once had. Maybe there’s a special challenge in locating species once common that are now hard to find. Maybe part of it is that we don’t miss what we didn’t know. If you never seen tens of thousands of snow geese together, then seeing a flock of 1000 is pretty exciting. If you can see fifty different species of birds in one birding day, it’s quite an accomplishment – even if the total number of individuals is not much greater than the number of species. If you’ve never seen a horde of marauding robins strip a mountain-ash of its berry crop in no time at all….

    We will have robins this year. There may only be twenty or thirty at a time, but some will come. They will eventually eat most of the berries, although it won’t be in a short-term frenzy, like in the past. People who see them will no doubt enjoy the sight. I know I will.

   I just miss the way it used to be. 


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© Sanford Willbur 2022