Discussing the Birds and the Bees

Three times this week I’ve seen flocks of sandhill cranes flying over. Sandhill cranes make a peculiar trilling call that once you’ve heard it you can never fail to recognize it again. Sandhills often fly high, so high that you can barely see them as dots against the sky, but even then you can still hear their call.

Just a couple weeks ago I saw a juvenile bald eagle perched in a tree along Eel River. Last year I saw adult eagles several times by Blue River. While kayaking on Pigeon River by Mongo last year I saw both sandhills and bald eagles within a few hundred yards along the river. On any morning or evening along the rivers you can see the great blue herons, impossibly gawky birds, winging along the waterways.

We have 2 enormous red-tailed hawks that live along the creek near our house, and there are kestrels perched on the telephone wires everywhere. At night we can sit on our porch and often hear great horned owls calling to one another in the woods.

And of course there are all the little birds. We have flocks of bluebirds around our house. Red-winged blackbirds sit perched on top of our evergreens and give their bossy calls. All the way down to tiny hummingbirds, we’ll see a half-dozen at a time at our feeders.

Birds, birds, birds. So what?

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a lad, back in the 60’s, you just didn’t see the birds of prey or the big birds like sandhill cranes or great blue herons. Even Canada geese, which are a scourge now, were a rare sighting 50 years ago. A “V” of geese going overhead was a reason to run outside and gawk.

What happened?

In 1962 Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” which described how the pesticide DDT moved through the food chain, eventually weakening the eggs of the big birds at the top of the food chain so they couldn’t reproduce.

Carson’s book was a catalyst that contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the eventual banning of DDT for agricultural use in 1972.

And now we have birds. Big birds: cranes and herons; predators: owls, hawks and eagles; little birds: red-winged blackbirds, bluebirds, and hummingbirds.

I don’t know if banning DDT or other conservation measures resulted in the birds coming back. I’m not a biologist or a chemist or even much of a bird-watcher, I have to look up even the most common birds in a bird book to identify them. But just a few years ago there weren’t many birds, and now they’re everywhere.

In production agriculture now we’re engaged in a debate over a kind of insecticide called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids were first used commercially less than 30 years ago. Now they are used to treat practically every corn seed planted and a large percentage of the soybeans planted in the US.
Some people say those insecticides are behind the decline in the number of bees. Others point to scientific studies that show neonics (as they’re often called) do not harm bees.

I don’t know if neonics harm bees. But the headlong rush of US agricultural to embrace their use strikes me as foolhardy. We use them cautiously on our farm and are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of any insecticides we use. I enjoy watching the birds too much to take chances.

It seemed like a good idea at the time
It seemed like a good idea at the time

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