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August 29th, 2014
Birds in your backyard

Q4. What bird has returned to Toronto after disappearing in 1960 and what has brought them back? (P14)


Birds in your backyard

By Beth Parker

Look about you–no matter where you are in the city–chances are that somewhere you'll see a bird flying in the sky, gathering food on the ground or hiding in some bushes. Or close your eyes and listen; above the sounds of traffic you can almost always hear a bird singing or a gull screeching in the background. Birds are all about us, in the country and the city. During the winter when the leaves are off our trees and our feathered friends are looking for food, it is easier to spot familiar and sometimes rare birds and enjoy their songs piercing the crisp winter air. On snowy banks we watch sparrows, pigeons, gulls and Canadian geese gathering bits of food. Small bouncy chickadees line up on tree branches with their familiar 'chick-a-dee-dee' call, bright red cardinals (the male!) sings its clear whistle, 'cheer-cheer-cheer', and hardly a day goes by without seeing, or hearing, our brilliant blue jays.


Gold Finch

Blue Jay

Canadian Geese

Black-capped Chickadee

Changing conditions, different birds

This past year, bird watchers in Toronto were treated to some rare sightings–a few spotted the Eastern Screech Owl, Northern Mocking Bird, and Hooded Merganser. Others noticed robins during our warmer winters (even though they usually fly south) and it is more common now to see Baltimore Orioles as they move north from the USA to breed. A couple of decades ago, spotting a Cardinal was difficult, today Cardinals are a very common sight in our backyards and parks.

Our changing environment

It's not your imagination, or lack of observation. Over time, the kinds of birds we see in our parks, our backyards and along the beaches changes. Some birds that were very common a few decades ago are almost impossible to find now, and a few are more abundant.

The reasons why our bird population changes are all connected to the altered habitat of our birds and different environmental conditions. There are various reasons for these changes including the fact that today more people feed birds during the winter!

Expanding city, fewer farms

As we know, over time our cities grow and change. For example, as Toronto expanded over the past 100 years, there was less farmland. This affected the food and ecological community for different species of birds. Food and nesting material that birds depended on changed or disappeared. Birds faced new prey, different parasites, competitors, and predators that they weren't used to.

Changing climate

Scientists also know that our climate changes over time, which in turn, alters the kinds of vegetation and therefore, birds in a region. Climate changes happened as early as 8,000 years ago when humans began farming, but since the mid-20th century, we've seen the increase in the average temperature of the Earth's near-surface air and oceans–known as global warming. Warmer climates also alter the schedule for when birds migrate, which in turn changes the food they find. By waiting longer to fly to their destination, the food they would normally find on their arrival–such as caterpillars– have already turned into butterflies. All of these reasons make it easier for some birds to survive, even thrive, and others to move away in search of a new home.

Birds forced to change migratory patterns

Birds that migrate south for the winter also have been affected by the growth of our cities. Toronto is on the lakeshore beneath one of the four world's busiest migratory bird corridors, the Central Flyway. Birds such as the Baltimore Oriole use the Central Flyway to travel south, or north, across and around the Great Lakes. Scientists discovered that as taller buildings were built along our coast lines, migratory birds started hitting the windows of brightly lit office towers.

Today, collisions with buildings are the leading cause of bird death in North America. It is slowly reducing our numbers of approximately 64 species of migratory birds. These birds include the Ruby Throated Humming Bird and the Red- Breasted Nuthatch.


Northern Mockingbird

Seagull

Mourning Dove

Sparrow

Different times – different birds

So what birds do, and don't we see in Toronto these days?

Until the 1970s, the Northern Bobwhite was a very common sight in southern Ontario. No one sees Bobwhites in or around Toronto today; in fact, the Ontario Field Ornithologicals (OFA) lists the Bobwhite on its endangered list. This is because the expansion of agriculture that started with our pioneers changed the Bobwhites' habitat so much they couldn't survive here any longer.

The Hooded Warbler faced a similar challenge. As forests were cut down in Ontario and as our climate warmed, the Hooded Warbler had difficultly finding food. The Red- Headed Woodpecker also found it difficult to survive in Ontario because it depended on woodlots with dead trees for nesting; such woodlots were removed as the land was urbanized. The Red Headed Woodpecker also faced competition for food from starlings. Many also died because of collisions with cars! Many think of Gold Finches as a common sight in their backyard but these lovely songbirds can be more difficult to find these days. Climate change and rising CO2 levels has affected their food supply and their health.

Some remember Bluebirds from their youth but by the 1960s the Ontario Eastern Bluebird, had almost disapeared from farmlands around Ontario. This is because Bluebirds liked to nest in wooden fence posts, which stopped being built as larger farms replaced family farms. Today, thanks to Bluebird activists that placed thousands of boxes along fence lines as Bluebird "houses", our Eastern Bluebirds have returned. Several years ago students built about 200 Bluebird nesting boxes that were installed at the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre. Today, Rouge Valley is one of the few places in Ontario you can see Bluebirds once more.

Birds that thrive

Paradoxically, other birds that used to be harder to find are now more common because of changing conditions. The chickadee, for example, is a hardy little bird equipped to remain in Ontario over winter. Because our winters are milder, our chickadee population is thriving, even in our cities. The Northern Cardinal can withstand cooler temperatures but are ground feeders. They will move from the country into our city during the winter simply because there is less snow, so it's easier to find food.

Also start looking for the Bobolink. This migratory songbird has always lived south of the Great Lakes but the Bobolink is expected to move north to Canada, coming to your backyard soon!

The Peregrine Falcon population, almost eliminated because of the use of the pesticide DDT a couple of decades ago, is thriving once more. Ontario banned DDT then placed falcon chicks on buildings to nest. As a result, the Peregrine Falcon has adapted to urban living by nesting on high rise buildings and condos.

Keeping track of our birds

Thanks to volunteers with organizations like the Rouge Valley Winter Bird Count or the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) we're actually able to track birds sighted in communities across North America. Every year, bird watchers send in checklists of birds they spot so that conservationists can monitor how our birds are doing.

In 2010–the 13th year of the GBBC– participants reported 602 species in 11.2 million individual bird observations. The patterns shown in the GBBC data is then used to alert scientists of species that may be in danger, or need more follow up study.


Hooded Merganser

Robin

Peregrine Falcon

Baltimore Oriole

Caring for our birds

There are many organizations and interest groups dedicated to saving our birds, rescuing injured or stranded birds, or researching what can be done to help them adapt to their new conditions. The first organization in the world to address the issue of migratory birds colliding with buildings was the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP). Since 1993, FLAP volunteers have picked up over 44,000 birds from 162 species in the Toronto region – 40% have survived and were released back into the wild. FLAP is also very active in getting everyone from building managers to municipal governments to develop programs and policies that protect birds from these hazards.

What you can do

You can help as well! There are many actions you can take to get involved by learning more and doing something about our changing bird population.

Count the birds

Volunteer to help "count" birds. Join the annual Rouge Park Bird Count, a 1 day event each January www.rougepark.com, or become a bird watcher for the GBBC. birdsource.org/gbbc

Help our birds

Find out what you can do to prevent collisions in the office tower where you work or your apartment. Also find out what you can do if you find an injured bird. flap.org

Learn more about our Ontario birds. The Ontario Field Ornothologist website gives a list of all birds you can find here. ofa.ca

To prevent collisions with windows where you live, hang ribbons or other material in strips no more than five centimeters apart on the outside of windows for the full width of the glass. For even better results consider using wind chimes. At work, ask your building manager to adopt the Bird-Friendly Building program. If your building is already enrolled, pass on your congratulations!


Screech Owl

Grackle

Mallard Duck

Hooded Warbler

Feed our birds

Save yourself time in the flowerbed by not dead-heading flowers. Birds love to feed on the seeds of flower heads such as cone-flowers, tall marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, core-opsis and sunflowers. Leave plant material in your garden (such as dead flower stalks) over the winter and keep leaves under shrubs, because this provides protection for birds. Particularly during migration season, volunteer to help improve your office or apartment building's Bird-Friendliness. Start by turning off lights and closing blinds at night. Use a wide variety of native plants in your garden, including those that produce seeds and berries, as well as flowers that provide nectar and attract insects.


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