The canary is not just in the coal mine, folks. It and its feathered friends are all around us and sending a serious warning signal.
A major new study, led by Cornell University scientists and published in the journal Science, found that the population of birds in North America has fallen 29% since 1970. That’s 3 billion fewer birds of all kinds today.
The study’s hard numbers are new and confirm what wildlife scientists have suspected for years. But the causes of the decline in birds have long been known — No. 1 is loss of habitat, with significant annual bird killings by pet and feral cats (2.6 billion), window collisions (624 million) and vehicle collisions (214 million).
As that list suggests, people can do much to reduce avian mortality and help the bird population rebound. Here are some simple steps that can be taken now by New Jersey, its communities and just about every resident of the state.
The state Legislature — the N.J. Senate in particular — should quit stalling and pass the bipartisan bill creating a program to certify private wildlife habitat and immunize it from municipal ordinances that might deem it a nuisance or otherwise unlawful.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Democrat representing Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, developed the bill with Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick of Westfield. Under it, the state Department of Environmental Protection — which already encourages such backyard and commercial habitat — would set standards and authorize certifications.
Twice it has passed the Assembly unanimously, only to die of neglect in the Senate.
The benefit of encouraging habitat for birds and other wildlife is obvious. To see the need for the program look no farther than Avalon, which this year has taken a resident to court because she allowed a vine whose berries feed birds to grow more than 9 inches long in her wildlife-friendly yard.
The borough’s actions are shockingly out of step with South Jersey, which is world-famous for its fall hawk watch, spring shorebird migration and as a major eco-tourism destination. For a good example, consider the towns of Cape Island down the coast.
That area south of the Cape May Canal — including Cape May, West Cape May, Cape May Point and part of Lower Township — is one of just four in New Jersey certified as a Community Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
Wildlife habitat there has been restored, ordinances to encourage native plants have been adopted and a water-conservation garden has been created. Cape Island is used each year by more than 400 species of birds, including numerous endangered and threatened species.
Every community could be improved by becoming more natural and wildlife friendly. While that’s a worthy long-term goal, each individual can do things now to make their world a better place for birds.
Start by keeping cats indoors where they won’t instinctively kill birds. Plant native trees and shrubs in the yard that produce berries and seeds to attract a variety of birds and wildlife. Put up a bird house or two for cavity nesters. Quit mowing an area and let native grasses take over, creating a home for field birds. Transition to an easy-to-maintain, largely pesticide- and herbicide-free yard.
NJ Audubon has been providing expert help with backyard habitat for decades, and partners with the National Wildlife Federation in the Gardening for Wildlife program. Check it out at njaudubon.org/gardening-for-wildlife.
The loss of nearly a third of the continent’s birds in less than one human lifetime is tragic and worrisome, but needn’t be a cause of despair like so many challenges to society. You, your town and your state have the ability to start doing things a little at a time to eventually make a big difference. Make choices in favor of birds and other wildlife today and help ensure people a half century from now still have a natural world to live in and enjoy.