Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bird Habitat: How to enhance it and How to ruin it

Big birds, little birds and in between; some of my fondest memories are centered on experiences involving birds.  Like when I was a kid roaming the woods along the San Fernando River in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico and listening to ghost doves (white-tipped doves) cooing hauntingly from the trees around me and then running down to the river to catch glimpses of chachalacas along the water’s edge.  The ranch was called El Cuervo, The Crow, and there were tens of thousands of both crows and ravens.  During parts of the year white-winged doves clouded the sky and I was forever searching for glimpses of the seven different owl species that frequented the area as well as keeping records of the varieties of hawks I saw.  In other places my memories are back-dropped by the echoing calls of rufescent-tinamous and watching yellow headed parrots squawking loudly as they flew from one spot to another.  I recall a hike through a canyon where mot-mots and brown jays shadowed me for hours.

I have four watering stations in my front yard and at first light I look out my cabin windows to see if the birds have arrived.  This year migrating hummingbirds were stressed by the severe drought that nowadays seems a part of everyday life.  A preview of a world we live in beset by rising temperatures and tortured by a lack of rain.  Who do you trust to take care of the land and safeguard the air and water?  So I set out a hummingbird feeder as have hundreds of others in the region to help hummingbirds on their journey south for the winter.

Providing good bird habitat is not a hard thing to accomplish.  It doesn’t require a lot of money or exorbitant effort.  Nor does it demand a mountain of bureaucratic research.  It does, however, involve having a conscience and a bit of empathy.  One has to think beyond self.  I read an article in a pamphlet recently about quail habitat.  Bobwhite quail populations have experienced a rough time as of late due mainly to the effects of human behavior.  Whether the result of imported fire ants swarming chicks or feral hogs released into the wild where they search out quail eggs or debilitating droughts or urban sprawl or pesticides or fragmentation, the results are that bobwhite quail numbers have plummeted in many places.  In the article mentioned above a biologist was quoted as saying, “The efforts [to study quail] will allow us to test the hypothesis that, given enough usable habitat [sic], we can sustain viable populations of quail over boom and bust cycles.”  While it’s true that bobwhite populations wax and wane naturally perhaps the problem stems not from these natural phases but from attempts to commercialize the entire process for hunting.  In other words, it’s not about providing habitat, at least not in this case, but instead about producing birds to make money off of through shooting.  Regardless, it is relatively easy to gauge the value of one’s hypothesis by simply reversing the question and running it backwards.  Allow me to explain.  What if we were to say: The efforts [to study quail] will allow us to test the hypothesis that, given the eradication of all habitats, we can annihilate viable populations of quail regardless of boom and bust cycles.  In other words, this is not a hypothesis; it is simply a matter of what some might call common sense.  While it’s true that specific animals have specific needs it is also true that species and habitats tend to coalesce over time.  Where massive mono-dimensional agricultural practices have replaced multi-dimensional diverse habitats we see a corresponding decrease in animal numbers and diversity.  The Lower Rio Grande Valley of deep South Texas was at one time a birding wonderland.  Extensive agriculture coupled with nauseous urban sprawl has reduced the value of South Texas birding considerably.  It just ain’t what it used to be.  In many places all you see are millions of great-tailed grackles, Brewer’s blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds.  There are still interesting birds to see but their numbers have decreased dramatically over the years.

So then what is the key to providing good bird habitat?  It boils down to three things.  1) Nature 2) Water 3) Minimized Predation.  What good will it do if you build a sanctuary with lots of trees, shrubs and vines and plenty of watering sources if next door there are ten thousand stray cats that will come in and wipe out your birds in a matter of days?  I’ve seen that exact phenomena in many places.

On any given day I’ll have from four to six large coveys of bobwhite quail in my front yard.  I do not shoot them and I will not allow anyone else to shoot them.  They are part of my extended family.  Just like the cardinals, green jays, scores of doves, pauraques, painted buntings, vermillion fly catchers, pyrrhuloxias…the list goes on and on.  I keep nature close to the house.  I provide water.  Now and then a Harris hawk or Coopers hawk or Swainson’s hawk will lite on a branch and survey its next meal and then gorge on a tasty morsel.  Every once in a while an Indigo or Corn snake will find a clutch of eggs and do the same.  It’s understandable.

Not long ago I owned a lot and house in a nearby city.  I’d spent years providing bird habitat.  It was a small city lot but nonetheless I tried my best to blanket the free space with foliage.  Besides keeping the house nicely shaded and thus reducing utility bills I had birds like no one around me.  I found great pleasure in working to assure that the yard was truly a piece of nature amidst miles of concrete, asphalt and urban noise.  When I sold the property I hoped the new owner would likewise be a nature person.  To my shock I drove by the property a few months afterward and the new owner had removed every tree, shrub and cactus from the lot.  It was horrific.  Why would anyone be so inconsiderate, I wondered?  The giant trees were no more.  All I saw was brick and lumber.  I never went back.