Birds... Neighbors? Tenants? Friends?

Each spring when songbirds return to our yards, they do so from epic journeys spanning as far south as South America. The birds that show up like clockwork, are often the very same individuals year after year, and if they are not the same individuals, then they are often their offspring! The very same bird... think about that for a moment. Their feathers molting to refresh, but the very same beak, legs, body, tiny eyes, make that journey thousands of miles just to come to your yard. We refer to this as "high site fidelity."

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Now imagine for a moment, if a friend of yours traveled 2,500 miles by his own power with just the clothes on his back, across mountains, seas, rivers, through storms, dodging danger day in and day out, just to come to your doorstep. What kind of reception would you give him when he arrived after such a journey? You would give him a giant hug, immediate shelter, sustenance, and look on in awe as you sit to listen to his harrowing tale!

Granted, some birds do not have high site fidelity, and others in varying degree. The golden-winged warbler is a prime example of a bird with high site fidelity. For those birds that do key in on one location, your property is their home so to speak.

Our relationship with these birds and "nature" in general is complex, to say the least, but, in this particular relationship, can we define us and them as neighbors? I don't think so. No, as property owners, as people that have literally staked our lot out for our lives and presumably our children's lives after us, the relationship with wildlife is much more like the feudal system. One of lord and tenants.  

As property owners, we have complete and sole control over the resources of our property. It is at our discretion (with minor regulations) to build a pond, log timber, establish a farm, plant flowers, etc... The composition of our property is ours to paint.

Now, this is not to draw a picture of helplessness for the songbirds. These birds have evolved over millennia to a place of resiliency and strength through migration, adapting to make the most out of changing seasons and varying food sources. Each species has found its own niche. Some in fact have adapted to thrive in a the human manipulated landscape. Others rely on change, but for the most part, species have evolved to rely on a balanced and slow moving ecosystem.

There are things that humans do that can appear destructive one-hand but be productive on the other, maybe making it easier for one lot and harder for another. This is to acknowledge the differences in needs, opinions, and values that we all have. But with that being said, what I would encourage, as lords of your property, is richness, richness in diversity. A density of life rather than the absence of life. In considering what composition you will paint with broad strokes on your property, consider the individuals and their families, and how you can give them support through shelter and sustenance while making their chances of survival on this earth greater. In return, you will be rewarded with the riches of song, vibrant colors, and the lifelong companionship of our dear friends in nature.

Of all of the challenges that these birds go through on a yearly basis, you have the precious ability to create a safe haven for them on your property. So, when you sit on the porch this spring, crank up the lawn mower, or take a walk through your woods, pause for a moment, and think about their story.

There are some things you can do to help:

  • Reconsider having a clean shaven mowed lawn - there is much beauty in the wild hair of an un-kept lawn!
  • Ensure that cats are not on the loose outdoors. Feral and house cats have been devastating to bird populations.
  • Foster insects. Insects are the foundation of the ecosystem, consider planting a variety of native plants that will not only feed the birds but will also feed the insects that feed the birds.

The dire picture is that the individual bird population has been reduced to 50% over the last 50 years. There is half the birdlife today than there was in the 1960's. That's is a massive loss in a very short period, but, you have the ability to control that destiny on your own property. What picture will you paint on your canvas?