Birthdays don’t usually mean anything to me (well, except for my 30th when I figured I’d reached old age….); just another day or, as a friend pointed out, just a number. Just a number? Well, I don’t know if my progressively aching joints, diminished hearing (Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, high-pitched warblers), and a brain that needs to work hard to remember a name or find a word would necessarily agree. But this birthday kept me up well into the wee hours thinking things over.
My main line of thinking was about changes in bird numbers and diversity. I’ve been seriously birding for 65 years – my grandmother encouraged an already-apparent interest by buying me those little hard-covered Golden bird guides and I began to compare their pictures with the birds outside our kitchen window. There’s been a lot of changes since then; none of them good although a few might be thought of as just benign, a sign of changing weather patterns (like the movement north of Carolinian species).
One Spring, when I was in Grade 8, I raced home after school to check out the birds in the backyard trees. It was mid-May and migrants had been passing through in the previous few days en masse. I noted 13 species of warblers in a single tree at the same time. Now, at Ruthven, I’m pretty pleased if a can tick off 13 warbler species in a whole day throughout the site. And there are some days in May when members of the banding group just look at each other in wonder and comment on how empty the woods seem while doing census.
I grew up in Hamilton’s East End. At dusk and well into the night the sky was punctuated by the calls of numerous Common Nighthawks and, before it got too dark, you could watch them dive and twist and turn. I haven’t seen a nighthawk over Hamilton in the Summer for years and count myself lucky indeed when I see a few during the Spring and Fall migrations, usually along the river. They’re a good “poster-child” for the demise of aerial insectivores.
And you didn’t have to go very far to get out of the city and into farm fields. Rich farm fields – it was drilled into us in elementary school that the swath of land running in a semi-circle from Oshawa to Niagara-on-the-Lake was the Golden Horseshoe – some of the very richest farmland in the world. In every pasture (and there were lots of them) you could easily find a wide range of grassland birds: Bobolinks, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, even Upland Sandpipers in good numbers. Last weekend my son Geoff and I cycled in the blazing heat (another thing I don’t remember – prolonged periods of very hot temperatures!) along the “Waterfront” Trail from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Burlington Beach Canal. (Much of this “trail” runs along the North Service Road so you can enjoy the noise and flow of the QEW traffic.) My only grassland bird encounter was the sound of a solitary Savannah Sparrow. Large mono-culture fields that we did pass had no birds associated with them – in them or over them. This ride provided a stark example of the massive loss and poisoning of our once-rich environment. It has become the Concrete Horseshoe.
I’d like to say that this story has a happy ending. But try as I may, I can’t find one. And I think that’s what kept me awake, that cerebral search for a glimmer of hope that things could get better, that we would stop building and poisoning and…..well, breeding. For it seems that no matter what math you choose to use or what truths (or non-truths) you embrace World population is soon going to reach 9 billion. And, evidently, these folks need to eat and have shelter. So get out there and enjoy the wildlife around you while it’s still there.