Last week Peter Alden, a well-known naturalist, author, and eco-tourism pioneer based in Concord, MA, spoke to a packed room at the Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge meeting which took place at the Eastern Mass. NWR Complex visitor center in Sudbury.
Peter’s program was titled “The Ups and Downs of our Birds” and he created a whirlwind review of the many species of birds in our area and how their presence (or absence) is intertwined with human activity: changes in the landscape, environmental awareness, global warming, and bird feeding.
If you’ve never heard Peter give a lecture before, I highly recommend that you do. He’s not shy about his opinions and has an amusing way of driving his points home, particularly when it comes to invasive species. His presentation style is rather free-flowing, aided by slides with the images that have a more clinical feel to them – providing a visual counterpart to his words, but certainly they are not the feature of the program. (And, by slides, I mean 35mm slides in a carousel projector. Peter notes that he’s a dinosaur who checks his email almost once a week.) You’ll also know exactly what town he was born and raised in as he pronounces “Concord” and “Thoreau” in the way only true Concordians do.
Peter’s talk was rather though-provoking and I thought I’d share some of my reactions to it. My discussion here really doesn’t do justice to the depth of what was presented or even my thinking on the topic – but rather I hope it becomes a starting point for others to consider their place in respect to the complex environment that surrounds us all.
Peter’s friend, former Massachusetts Secretary of Environment Affairs, Bob Durand, was in the audience and introduced Peter primarily as an ornithologist. But Peter is a true naturalist. He has written a number of nature field guides for Audubon and while his talk was ostensibly about our local birds, his extensive background allowed him to embed this primary topic in a much larger context — punctuated with the occasional politically incorrect jab at one thing or another.
Before I get into Peter’s topics, I feel compelled to preface my comments with an observation that I’ve always been fascinated in the difference between the pragmatic expert and the enthusiast. Enthusiasts can often appear to the casual observer as experts, but when you really start to dig into a topic the pragmatic expert opinions really make you pause and think and, often, surprise. Because they have spent so many years accumulating the experience and perspective that most of us can never hope to achieve, their world view is often at odds with the more romantic views of the world.
An avid birder can tell you reams about different species of warblers, where they’ve travelled to to see them and add them to their “life list”, how to differentiate them by subtle variations in their songs, etc. A similar discussion with a biologist might touch on some of those same topics but I’ll wager that the birder probably hasn’t spent weeks or years observing the life cycle of the birds, climbed up a tree to band young chicks, taken blood samples, examined droppings for clues to the bird’s diet, and watched the birds succumbing to a disease or being eaten by a tree snake.
My daughter received her degree in Animal Sciences. Not unlike a farmer or rancher, she loves animals of all kinds and works with them daily. She also finds them pretty tasty.
This is a rather roundabout way of me saying that when I listen to a TED talk or sit in on a program that brings people who are thinking critically about a topic, I take a fair degree of enjoyment in being challenged to understand how and why they have come to whatever points they are trying to make.
Peter Alden discussed the rise and fall of certain species in Massachusetts – particularly over the past few decades. It would be pretty easy to finger “global warming” as the culprit in these changes and, indeed, in for some species it can be argued that climate change is certainly a factor. But for all the complexities that swirl around climate, there are other forces at work here with the finger of change still firming pointing at us as a society — and it gets a bit more uncomfortable when it starts pointing at us as individuals making very voluntary choices.
Many years ago when I was growing up in western Massachusetts the Robin was considered to be the harbinger of Spring. When Robins migrated to Massachusetts from their wintering grounds down south, Spring surely was just around the corner. Today, Robins are here pretty much year-round. The migrating species that now signals spring is something like the Red-Winged Blackbird, which still migrates south during our winter months.
The change in the Robin’s migrating habits in Massachusetts are likely the result of our milder winters that are likely the result of global warming. But you would be incorrect to apply this same causation to other species.
The decline of Grouse and a number of ground-dwelling birds has less to do with climate change but rather a combination of the reversion of Massachusetts to a more forested landscape and a change in the predator hierarchy. Like most of New England, Massachusetts was nearly 100% deforested during the 18th and 19th century creating an ecosystem that is vastly different from what we have today. The absence of top predators such as wolves and mountain lions creates a niche for coyote and fox – and they tend to go after Grouse and similar-sized birds.
The Carolina Wren is a bird that was until a few years ago almost unheard of in New England – especially during the cooler months. Not too surprising considering its name. You might also think that warmer winters must be the reason for their presence in your backyard, but there is an equally valid contributor to their behavior change: your bird feeder. Or, more accurately, the countless thousands of bird feeders here in New England.
Peter ticked through a number of bird species and asserted that their rising or declining numbers can be attributed to those of us feeding birds thousands of tons of black oil seed more than any other factor. We are attracting birds that normally wouldn’t spend their winters here because they now have a plentiful supply of seed and food courtesy of well-intentioned humans — and we are losing some species to our neighbors in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, who are, in turn, providing food for birds who normally wouldn’t be bothered to stick out the winter in the foothills of the White Mountains. And by providing seeds to these feeder-addicted species we inadvertently tip the balance of survival for other species (e.g., house sparrows will kill bluebirds to use their nest holes).
Suffice it to say that Peter’s assertions have, if you’ll pardon the analogy, ruffled more than a few feathers. The feeding of wild birds is a multi-billion dollar industry and the message that by feeding birds you are killing birds is a hard one for people who claim to love birds to accept. I have to admire his ability to speak truth to power.
And so I am faced with the question: Why do I have bird feeders? The enthusiast in me says that I’m providing food for birds that need it because we’ve indiscriminately paved a fair portion of our landscape and my providing birdseed helps restore some balance in nature. But faced with evidence to the contrary, am I really doing this to help the birds or am I doing it for the entertainment factor that comes with watching birds out our living room window? If my actions are actually causing harm to some species am I a truly a steward of the environment? And, as a professional nature photographer, who believes that baiting is an unethical practice for getting photographs of wildlife, how can I justify feeding wild birds in my own backyard?
Peter Alden’s assertion around bird feeders is one that I want to investigate some more, but it certainly has a fair ring of reason to it and here at Casa Griffin we’re re-evaluating our bird feeder situation. I have to say we’ve never been terribly overboard on feeding — we have one in the front yard that is pretty well maintained and two stations in the backyard that are only occasionally stocked. We also have two hummingbird feeders out during the warmer months. We also have worked hard to make our yard wildlife friendly (the subject of an upcoming blog article) and going forward we’ll probably strive to balance the scales of our suburban landscape with additional native plants in a natural cycle rather than feeding birds seed grown who knows how and trucked from who knows where.
And while birds certainly feature prominently in my personal environmental stewardship activities, Peter also touched on a topic he has been speaking passionately about the past few years: invasive species. I think I will bring up some of his trenchant observations on that very important subject in my upcoming article on our backyard project.
I’d love to hear what readers of this article think about the bird feeding issue. Please feel free to click on the comment button located just below the woodpecker. (Now there’s a phrase you probably haven’t seen before.)