A distinguished scientist reveals how we are losing the world's songbirds, why this predicts widespread environmental problems, and what we all can do to save the birds and their habitats.
Wood thrush, Kentucky warbler, Eastern kingbird—migratory songbirds are disappearing at a frightening rate. By some estimates, we may already have lost almost half of the songbirds that filled the skies only forty years ago. Renowned biologist Bridget Stutchbury convincingly argues that songbirds truly are the "canaries in the coal mine"—except the coal mine looks a lot like Earth and we are the hapless excavators.
Following the birds on their six-thousand-mile migratory journey, Stutchbury leads us on an ecological field trip to explore firsthand the major threats to songbirds: pesticides, still a major concern decades after Rachel Carson first raised the alarm; the destruction of vital habitat, from the boreal forests of Canada to the diminishing continuous forests of the United States to the grasslands of Argentina; the bright lights and structures in our cities, which prove a minefield for migrating birds; and global warming. We could well wake up in the near future and hear no songbirds singing. But we won't just be missing their cheery calls, we'll be missing a vital part of our ecosystem. Without songbirds, we would face uncontrolled insect infestations, and our trees, flowers, and gardens would lose a crucial element in their reproductive cycle. As Stutchbury shows, saving songbirds means protecting our ecosystem and ultimately ourselves.
Some of the threats to songbirds: The U.S. annually uses 4–5 million pounds of active ingredient acephate, an insecticide that, even in small quantities, throws off the navigation systems of white-throated sparrows and other songbirds, making them unable to tell north from south. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservatively estimates that 4–5 million birds are killed by crashing into communication towers each year. A Michigan study found that 600 domestic cats killed more than 6,000 birds during a typical 10-week breeding season. Bridget Stutchbury
completed her Ph.D. at Yale University, was a research associate at the Smithsonian Institute, and is now professor of biology at York University in Toronto. She lives in Woodbridge, Ontario, and in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania.