How consumers affect migratory birds

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: That's the sound of the Wood Thrush. It's one of many migratory song birds on the decline. The bird spends its summers mostly in the eastern United States, but it winters in Central America where high-volume planting coffee plantations have been eating into its habitat. Coffee plantations though are not the only threat, and the Wood Thrush is not the only song bird that's in trouble. Bridget Stutchbury has been chronicling the decline of song birds for years now. She's a biologist at York University in Toronto. Professor, give us some perspective on the story we just heard from Diane Toomey.

Bridget Stutchbury: I think it's hard sometimes to appreciate the full extent of tropical deforestation that's going on when we hear figures like 10 million acres a year being cut down in Latin America. The consequence though is by having countries lose 70-90% of their forest cover; our birds that spend the winter in the tropics are declining dramatically in numbers. There are dozens of forest birds in trouble.

Mullins: Give us a couple examples.

Stutchbury: Birds like the Cerulean Warbler, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the Swainson's Thrush, and the Western and Eastern Wood Pewees.

Mullins: And back to the Wood Thrush that we heard at the beginning of this interview, you and other scientists say that the Wood Thrush is on the decline. I just wonder how much uniformity there is on predictions like this though because the International Union for the Conservation of Nature still classifies as what they call a species of least concern.

Stutchbury: Well, certainly for North American birds the Wood Thrush is what I call the poster bird for a song bird decline that's shown steep declines in every part of its range amounting to a 30% loss since the 1960s. And it's kind of sobering, on the international scale there are so many other species even worse off that the Wood Thrush barely registers with the IOCM.

Mullins: What is the overall effect of losing say a Wood Thrush or other birds that are in even steeper decline in their populations?

Stutchbury: These song birds that I study play a critical role in the ecosystem. We kind of hear their pretty songs and enjoy them in our backyards, but they actually have important jobs in nature. They're incredibly important for insect control. We have billions of birds that breed in North America in the summertime and their main job is to eat insects that would otherwise be eating trees. And they also help trees reproduce by spreading their seeds.

Mullins: So when we hear about things such as deforestation and habitat loss, they can sound very remote, but you have basically found that it's not somebody else who's causing trouble for the birds, but it's things that we do and products that we buy. Now I have a feeling that none of us is going to like the answer to this questions, but what are the things that we do that can affect the population of these birds?

Stutchbury: Well, all of us can assume large quantities or paper products and a lot of the logging that happens on the breeding grounds is to create newspapers, to create paper towels, toilet paper. And many of these products are now available based on recycled paper. So we should be looking for recycled paper. And also to look for paper that's certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Mullins: What else besides paper?

Stutchbury: Our birds are very strongly affected by the pesticides we use for growing foods, and both in the tropics and their breeding grounds by buying organic produce we can help make the environment safer for birds and for us. And during migration these birds unfortunately fly at night and they're very vulnerable to light pollution. Literally millions are killed trying to fly through our cities during migration. By turning the lights out we can reduce the mortality and tragic deaths of these birds during migration.

Mullins: I wonder if you see any signs for optimism? I mean looking at the conversations going on about global biodiversity, the new global biodiversity deal that was just signed in Japan that many find encouraging, do you?

Stutchbury: I find it extremely encouraging, but it's not nearly enough. The global biodiversity loss of mammals and amphibians and everything is just so steep that I think we need to mobilize consumers to take actions and not just sit back and let the governments take care of the problem for us.

Mullins: Is that a hard sell?

Stutchbury: I don't think so. I think nowadays people are kind of embracing climate change as a big threat, and I think that understanding the severity of climate change has opened people's minds more to understanding how we fit in with nature and how we depend on biodiversity and ecosystems.

Mullins: Bridget Stutchbury holds a Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation at York University in Toronto, and she's the author of the book "The Silence of the Songbirds". Professor, thanks.

Stutchbury: Okay, thank you.

Mullins: And you can hear the calls of some of those songbirds and get more information on birds and coffee at The World dot org.