Outside the living room window, batting wings and splattering water droplets caught my eye. A few months earlier, I'd dropped some 13-cent feeder goldfish and a handful of gambusia into the small pond in front of the house and, until the weather turned colder, admired dragonflies.
Not until November, after irrigation season ended and the ditches stopped flowing, did the pond transform into a gigantic birdbath. In an hour, eight species visited the pond that autumn morning: American robins, dark-eyed juncos, starlings, house finches, an American goldfinch, cedar waxwings, house sparrows and red-shafted northern flickers. Overhead, I heard crows and sandhill cranes. Later that afternoon, a downy woodpecker knocked against a tree west of the house.
Within a few weeks, I began setting out feeders—considering the monthly expenditure on seed a tithe paid to wildlife for lost habitat. I always buy the good stuff for my avian neighbors. In the same way that I can't stomach buying suspect food for my daughter, I could never buy cheap seed that left me wondering how it had been grown or what might be mixed into it.
But I felt no smug satisfaction when reading of a recent federal court case involving The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company. In March, the company pled guilty to charges that it had knowingly sold poisoned birdseed.
In 2005, Scotts, which is known for selling fertilizers, weed killers and bug eradicators, acquired a wild birdseed company. To keep bugs out of the seed, that company had treated its birdseed with Strocide II and Actellic 5E, pesticides commonly used on stored food and oil grains and in grain bins and warehouses. When Scotts took over, it continued dousing the seed, despite the fact that the Strocide II label warns that it is toxic to fish, birds and other wildlife.
In 2007, two employees warned of the threats to birds. Yet Scotts continued applying the pesticides to its birdseed, marketed under the names Morning Song, Country Pride, Scotts' Songbird Selections and Scotts' Wild Bird Food. Finally, in March 2008, the company issued a recall—but stopped only about 2 million out of a whopping 73 million units from being poured into feeders by well-meaning bird lovers.
That Scotts would betray its customers—customers who thought they were doing something good—is pretty despicable. What makes the story of Scotts all the more troubling is that bird populations have enough problems.
In March, two scientists released a study comparing 30 years of winter bird habitat data with climate data. In the Journal of Animal Ecology, Frank A LaSorte and Walter Jetz write that North American birds are shifting their habitats—but they're not doing it as quickly as the climate is changing. And as warming continues, birds will find it increasingly difficult to keep up with their habitats.
Birds aren't like people; they can't just move, build a house, install air conditioning or central heating, and pop over to the grocery store. Like most wildlife, birds occupy particular habitats and climate zones and rely upon specialized and seasonally dependent food sources.
According to a 2009 report by The Audubon Society, almost 60 percent of bird species that winter in North America have moved northward or inland in the past four decades. Of course, climate change isn't entirely to blame; development, energy production and agriculture are also booting birds out of their habitat.
Many bird populations that winter in New Mexico are declining or moving northward, says Karyn Stockdale, vice president and executive director of Audubon New Mexico. Birds once rare to New Mexico are moving north into the state, while others are leaving the area. Twenty years ago, she says, common yellowthroats were uncommon to New Mexico winters. Now, they winter in Las Cruces and even up the Rio Grande corridor toward Albuquerque. Similarly, the pygmy nuthatch, historically found in New Mexico's forests, has moved 265 miles north, and its population here has declined by 90 percent. Steller's jay, cedar waxwing, red-breasted nuthatch and Townsend's solitaire have all have shifted northward and declined in New Mexico.
"Birds of every kind—hummingbirds, songbirds, raptors and shorebirds—fly from their winter homes in the south to their summer breeding grounds, and then back south in the fall," Stockdale notes. "Along the way, they encounter many perils, including bright lights and tall buildings, cats, and toxic lawns."
Backyard habitat and feeders provide important stopover points for many species and help resident birds during drought or periods of decreased food supplies.
"The ways that we landscape and maintain our yards can have a direct and important impact on the environmental health of ourselves, our families, and local bird populations," she says, pointing out that the Audubon At Home program recommends reducing pesticide use, limiting water use, protecting water quality, removing exotic invasive plants and planting native species.
It's not on Audubon's list, but one more thing to consider is ensuring that companies aren't selling contaminated products—and profiting from the deaths of birds that could use a hand.