The Silence of the Songbirds

How can we attend to what we have not noticed?

It took a week or ten days for the strangeness of the silence that surrounded us as we walked in the forest to become audible, to realize that it was not what we were hearing but what we were not hearing that was what was important. The realization didn’t come all at once; after all I was wrapping up the fall semester, working on a grant, submitting final grades. Too, we were preoccupied by holiday preparations, by political fiascos local and international, by efforts to decide when and how to do certain necessary house repairs: at first our own chatter obscured the silence. My relief at a week or more uninterrupted at home factored into my oblivion as well; I revelled in the sounds of the wind in the trees and the waves lapping at the shore, the squeak of cold snow and the crunch of ice cracking in small roadside puddles underfoot. I was not listening for what I did not hear.

Then there was the matter of the bird feeder that Marike had gotten Elisabeth for Christmas. We gave it to her early, reasoning that it wouldn’t be kind in the pre-holiday cold snap to withhold nutrition from the birds for something so silly and irrelevant as a calendar date. It was windy the first day that Elisabeth filled the feeder with oil seeds and fastened it, fore and aft, to the tree. When it was missing its lid and half-empty the next day, we had no way of knowing if the wind or crows had been at it, or if hungry songbirds had approached when we weren’t looking and consumed a goodly share of seeds. We recalled one bitterly cold Christmas in Quebec when the chickadees ate a pound or more of seeds a day. We filled up the feeder again and wired the lid tightly in place; for good measure we also hung a suet seed package we’d picked up at the vegetable stand, and imagined we’d soon see some birds. But we didn’t. Not one. Not at any point.

Perhaps it is too windy we said. Too exposed. Perhaps the birds are all feeding at our neighbour John’s feeder. He loves to watch them; sometimes in winters past we would meet him on the road, his pockets full of oil seeds. We walked up the road to the hill where in previous years we’d fed the nuthatches and chickadees from our hands. Often, as we approached, the birds would chirp at us and flutter around our heads, asking to be fed. But there was nothing there. Not a single bird. Not a flutter or a peep. I had put a handful of seeds in my pocket when we left the house; I left them in a line on the an absent neighbour’s balustrade, but I was pretty sure most of them would go to the squirrels.

On the way back down the hill several times I thought I heard a chirp in the woods, but when I turned my head it was just the dry rasp of twigs or little red squirrels chittering at the dog. That’s when we began to notice it: this elaborate, articulate silence; these stands of trees empty of birdsong, the feeder still full, the suet frozen in its mesh bag.

It is not as if there are no birds at all. Geese rest in the lee of the nearest island one calm morning, two loons paddle by inquisitively, and we hear, now and then, the dwindling company of pintail ducks burbling–and nearly every morning as well, the gunshots of duck hunters out over the water. The crows visit and carry away the scraps of apple and goose fat we’ve left out for them. Lone gulls bob in the waves. But there are no songbirds to be seen or heard anywhere. Not one.

We began to ask others about the silence we thought we were hearing. Still harbouring the hope that the chickadees were all flocking to our neighbour John’s feeder, we asked him if he’d seen any songbirds. No, he said; “not really. Not for quite a time. I don’t know where they are.” He didn’t seem particularly concerned; his daughter and her husband were visiting from Chicago and he had other things to think about. We asked our friend Bill about the birds when he dropped by with a rabbit, some venison steaks and several jars of fruit jellies he’d made. Bill is a sharp-eyed hunter and angler; few details about the state of the animal kingdom locally escape him. He too confirmed that he’d seen few songbirds, maybe none, but he was more bothered by the paucity of the sea ducks (where have the Eiders all gone?) and the fact that there didn’t seem to be any coyotes anywhere–not a sign of a single one for months, although his remote camera had picked up four bears back by his deer blind in the woods.

I decided I’d ask Sheet Harbour-based nature photographer Robert Moser, whom we’d encountered in the (silent) woods on Sober Island, heading out to the water with his son and some friends for the annual Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science initiative in North America. I sent Robert an email. Robert, I asked, how did the bird count go? By the way, have you seen many (any?) songbirds? We haven’t seen a single one for some time.

Robert got right back to me. He reported that during the bird count, he, his son and his friends had seen individuals from 43 different bird species in the area from Watt Section to Sober Island and Sheet Harbour Passage.

Sheet Harbour area Christmas Bird Count map
https://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/cbc/maps/NSSH.pdf

Robert also wrote that at his house, which is a few kilometres inland, in Sheet Harbour, he and his family had seen some birds at the feeder, “but probably not as many as last year at this time, although it’s hard to know for sure.” He reported that he had discussed the matter with his son, Chase, who was visiting from Central Canada. Chase reported “seeing quite a variety of birds since he has been home.” In addition, Chase suggested that since the winter in Nova Scotia had thus far “been generally mild,” most of the birds were likely “still feeding in the woods and may show up in greater numbers as it gets colder.” Robert sent me a link to the 21st annual “finch forecast” for the coming winter, which suggests that a number of smaller songbirds will remain in the pine forests across southern Canada. I hope this is true, but thus far, even on a walk in the woods several kilometres further inland than Robert’s place (where the pictures that accompany this piece were taken), we failed to see or hear a single songbird. Silence, it seems, at least for the moment where we are, still reigns.

In 1995, just three years after the catastrophic collapse of the East Coast cod fishery, in an article entitled, “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” British Columbia-based fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly addressed the importance of establishing accurate historical baselines for species counts. In particular, Pauly was interested in thinking about the ways that individuals in successive generations imperceptibly adjust downward their expectations about what constitutes abundant, large, or healthy species populations. He called this, our blindness to small environmental shifts and “creeping disappearances,” “shifting baseline syndrome.” Subsequently conceptually deployed in the first serious scientific assessments of the overall biomass reduction in commonly fished species by Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm (2005) and now increasingly cited in much environmental literature, “shifting baseline syndrome” describes our environmental forgetfulness as successive generational amnesia. In studies made in 2003, Myers and Worm found that Atlantic Cod, particularly in Atlantic Canada, had been reduced by overfishing to something in the neighbourhood of 5% their historical abundance.

The Wormlab‘s latest figures describing biodiversity loss and biomass reductions in the oceans are astounding, but so too are recent figures for creatures of the air. In an article published in October 2019 in the journal Science entitled “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” Kenneth Rosenberg and coauthors report significant declines in bird populations over the last half century, “resulting in the cumulative loss of billions of breeding individuals across a wide range of species and habitats.” The authors estimate that since the 1970s, some “three billion” birds of a variety of species, rare and common alike, have “gone missing” in North America. They argue that many common species could soon face extinction, unless humans take steps to reduce our impacts on birds and the surrounding ecosystems. This means doing everything we can to reduce the harms from cats, pesticides, skyscrapers and windmills, and to supply or ensure healthy food sources, from seeds to insects and other creatures. But even this report’s shocking figure–yet another in the alarms related to what is being called the sixth great extinction–has had little impact on most human activities and little to none on agricultural or urban zoning and environmental policy. Most of us are, it seems, blithely unaware that we are in a period of what a 2017 publication in that typically sober and understated journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, calls “a biological annihilation.”

So, where have the songbirds of West Quoddy gone? And what do we do about the fact that suddenly, the forests around us seem to have fallen silent? Have the birds wisely fled what our friend Bill thinks will be a particularly brutal winter? Do they know something we don’t? Are they happily eating spruce and pine nuts as Chase suggests, and likely to emerge when the weather turns colder? Or are they gone forever? Who was it that noticed the last passenger pigeon was gone? No one? Everyone?

When will we notice when what we’ve lost is gone? I wonder if I can go on living in a world where the children of my nieces and nephews and friends’ children may never hear a bird sing. What will become of humans who have lost that magical, wonder-inducing experience–never mind the ecological, trophic losses of which such disappearances also surely speak?

A few years ago I wrote a sonnet I called “Hurt birds.” Built from a half-remembered dream, it was, I thought, about the difficulties of taking responsibility for one’s own actions or the politics of blame. Surely it is about that, but today I think I see it with new eyes. Yes, house cats account for some large number of those missing billions of birds, but without us, there would be neither house cats nor skyscrapers nor such steeply diminished songbird counts. Hurt birds indeed. Let us name our own deadliness and cruelty; let us own our exterminations and extinctions; let us not blame the cats.

Hurt birds (on the politics of blame)

Listen, another dream. Small birds are fluttering

in my hands. They are little, like finches, but blue, rust and cream. Not

anything like swallows. We stand by the window in some

private study; thick volumes suck every sound and

I think my ears are ringing. It is cold; it must be

winter. Bare branches scratch the glass. I settle

little birds on a table; they gather in a huddle. They are

hurt. I’ve been plucking feathers from their

wings; I don’t know why I do it.

I wake to the cat (that incubus)

asleep on my chest. What do you think: could she

enwrap me, could she make we dream her dreams?

Wait. Let me name my own cruelty;

I should not blame the cat.

I went back up the hill today to where I’d left a line of seeds on the neighbour’s balustrade earlier in the week. The line of seeds was still there, very little diminished. No passersby among the animals apparently, not even a squirrel. What, I wonder, is becoming of us all?

NOTES:

Pictures were taken northeast of Sheet Harbour, near Malay Falls, in mid-December 2019.

Robert Moser, Nature and Wildlife Photographer. http://seacoasttrailart.com/index.php/art/artist/robert-moser.

Daniel Pauly (1995). “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.”Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 10(10): 430.

R. A. Myers and B. Worm (2005). “Extinction, Survival or Recovery of Large Predatory Fishes.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 360: 1453.

Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Adriaan M. Dokter, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith, Jessica C. Stanton, Arvind Panjabi, Laura Helft, Michael Parr, Peter P. Marra (2019). “Decline of the North American avifauna.” Science Vol. 366, Issue 6461:120-124.

The poem “Hurt Birds” was first published in Karin Cope (2015). What we’re doing to stay afloat. Pottersfield Press: 22.

21 January 2020

Update. Still no songbirds, not one sighted in the nearby woods or at the feeder. I try to remember if, in past years, we ever waited so long to see the chickadees and nuthatches. The swallows seemed to stay for an unusually long time into the fall. Are we witnesses a skewing of arrivals and departures as an adaptation to the shifting climate? Without much more than my anecdotal observations and a small network of friends’ surveys to draw upon, I cannot say much for sure. Our friend Kenny, in the Annapolis Valley, reports large concatenations of feathered visitors at his feeders, each species arriving at its designated hour. “Oil seeds are very popular” he writes last week. He attaches a picture of a yard full of birds. Robert Moser writes again too, to send along an article courtesy of his son Chase, about how Ron Pittaway developed the factors he considers in his “winter finch forecast.” I share it here, and hope that Pittaway is right, and the that the reason we are not seeing any birds is because they are finding food elsewhere, plentifully, in the forest. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-ron-pittaway-developed-his-acclaimed-winter-finch-forecast/

That article also contains some reflections on fluctuations in the small songbird populations, following the research of scientist Erica Dunn. Reporting on Dunn’s work, Elizabeth Serrano writes,

“Every two to three years, winter finches, along with Red-breasted Nuthatches (an “honorary” winter finch), are put to the test in an irruption—a forced migration of sorts due to fluctuations in their food supply….”

Dunn’s work focuses on the Red-breasted nuthatch, a species that “experiences regular irruptions in a two- to three-year cycle.” For this research, Serrano explains, Dunn “examined whether there was a negative relationship between a winter irruption and the next year’s summer breeding population. Dunn found that after an irruption occurs, the next year’s breeding Red-breasted Nuthatch population can be as much as 50% lower than the previous year’s.”

But, Serrano continues, “Dunn also found that the population losses stemming from an irruption don’t typically have long-term effects. Over the past 52 years, she found that the studied Red-breasted Nuthatch population had quadrupled, despite the 23 irruptions that had occurred during her study period.” So we may have some reason to hope not only that those small birds that we love to see will return, but that they are not yet dying out. Stay tuned. I’ll report again next year–or as soon as I have anything new to report.

For more on Erica Dunn’s research, see https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/irruption-takes-a-short-term-toll-but-doesnt-have-long-term-consequences/

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