May/June 2020Birds of a FeatherText By Joey Frazier Photos by Don and Joanne Wuori
Partners in Flight celebrates thirty years of landbird conservation.
I'm a fan of the Andy Griffith Show, and one of my favorite episodes follows Opie as he raises orphaned baby birds. Near the close of the show, he reluctantly releases the little fledglings into the wild. "The cage sure looks mighty empty, Pa," says Opie.
"Yes, son, but don’t the trees seem nice and full," answers Sheriff Andy Taylor.
In 1963, when "Opie the Birdman" first aired, it was easily a true statement. All of the trees, where I grew up in rural South Carolina, did seem nice and full, especially in the springtime. But . . . what if the trees and shrubs were no longer filled with birds darting and flittering to and fro? How "great" would the great outdoors be without the chirping and singing of our feathered friends?
Maybe the idea of an outdoors without bird calls is not as far-fetched as it first sounds? It is a fact, according to Partners in Flight, that bird numbers are declining dramatically. The organization estimates that breeding landbird populations have lost more than one billion individuals since 1970.
Partners in Flight
Celebrating three decades of landbird conservation this year, Partners in Flight (PIF) is a network of more than 150 partner organizations distributed throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the National Audubon Society and wildlife agencies such as the SCDNR. Leading the charge in the Palmetto State is Amy Tegeler, an SCDNR wildlife biologist and ornithologist stationed in Columbia.
"The SCDNR has designated 159 bird species as species of concern in our State Wildlife Action Plan," Tegeler said. "And many of those species are declining."
Tegeler goes on to explain how the state’s natural resources agency monitors species of greatest conservation concern to establish protections for these birds. The department provides assistance to landowners who desire to manage their lands to benefit bird species by encouraging the use of guidelines and best practices to reduce bird mortalities. The SCDNR also works with other agencies, organizations, universities and private citizens to help reduce the decline of local and migratory landbird populations.
Tegeler represents South Carolina's commitment to an international network of government, nongovernment and industry partners working together to reduce the need for more drastic regulatory action. Their goal: to make a difference for bird species before their populations reach critical levels requiring threatened or endangered status. Why? Because, according to PIF, birds are indicators of environmental quality. They are a keystone species of sorts that indicate the overall health of our shared ecosystem — our habitat or home.
Habitat. In South Carolina that might include longleaf pine savannas and open grasslands — both are examples of early successional habitats that once were abundant in here. Around the Palmetto State, through the mid-twentieth century, that type of habitat just happened as a result of normal agricultural practices. As urbanization crept into rural farming communities, the landscape changed. One of the first warning bells was silence as the familiar whistle of the bobwhite quail disappeared along with ragged fields and majestic pine stands.
Hunters were among the first to notice that their favorite bird was harder to find. What went unnoticed was the decline of many other bird species that we took for granted. Red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) and Bachman’s sparrows also live in these pine savannas, and loggerhead shrikes are found in open grasslands.
“The SCDNR continues to manage our properties occupied by RCWs to create habitat and encourage stable or increasing populations,” Tegeler said.
The use of manmade cavities or nests for RCWs is one approach that has a proven track record here in South Carolina. Tegeler explains that RCWs excavate their own cavities in mature longleaf pines. Storms or habitat alteration can destroy natural cavity trees and the little birds cannot excavate younger trees. So, biologists sometimes use prefabricated cavity inserts as a sort of woodpecker condo.
The inserts also are valuable for restoring cavities to enhance habitat in areas decimated by hurricanes and tornados.
Even after the cavity inserts are in place, there is more work to be done. Longleaf pines require prescribed fire and thinning to create the park-like savannas that so many landbirds prefer. Besides the decline of RCWs, loggerhead shrike populations continue to decrease across their range, and the SCDNR is lending a helping hand by conducting a demography study as part of a multistate and international project, according to Tegeler.
"We are monitoring reproductive success and survivorship," she said. “This study should help develop a full annual cycle model that could aid our understanding of what might be causing the decline in shrikes.”
Just Passing Through
Of course, not all of the wonderful bird species that adorn and add immeasurable value to our state are year-round residents. Migrating birds, such as the Baltimore oriole, are showing up in the Palmetto State more often, at least during the winter months. According to a 2018 SCDNR survey, orioles were recorded in thirteen of the state’s forty-six counties, ranging from the Midlands down through the coastal plain. This survey partnered with the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen-scientist project that offers everyday birdwatchers an opportunity to make a real difference for their favorite bird species.
The SCDNR's oriole project also includes winter banding, according to Tegeler. "Since 2016, there have been approximately three hundred Baltimore orioles tallied each year during the survey," she said.
Wood storks are another migratory success story. Among the largest wading birds inhabiting South Carolina, wood storks can grow to a height of more than three feet with a wingspan of more than sixty inches, according to the SCDNR.
Once distributed from South Carolina to southern South America, in 1984 these large black and white birds were listed as an endangered species under the Nongame and Endangered Species Act of 1974. For more than two decades, the birds received special protections, especially during nesting season. In 2010, wood storks were downlisted to threatened status.
One of the greatest success stories of all, at least in South Carolina, is the story of the bald eagle. Originally protected in 1940, bald eagles continued to decline until the species finally was listed as endangered in 1978 across most of the lower forty-eight states.
With special protections from both the state and federal government, bald eagles eventually stabilized and began a slow recovery. In 2007, they were removed from the threatened and endangered species list.
Keeping Common Birds Common
During the past thirty years, PIF has promoted strategies to conserve bird species before they need the extra protections such as threatened or endangered listings. All this work gets done because of partnerships — some of them small, others across the country and some international cooperative projects. If you consider the bigger picture, maybe from a birds-eye view, you might see that humans and birds utilize the same landscape. Since homesweet-home includes habitats for our feathered friends, then, just maybe, we should consider recent landbird declines as an indicator of the overall health of the environment that affects all of the state’s natural resources.
Amy Tegeler, a member of the PIF's Science Delivery Team within the Partners Eastern Working Group, may be only one person, but she plays a big role in the SCDNR's partnership with PIF. With dedicated scientists like her, we all can look forward to many more spring mornings when "the trees seem nice and full."
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine.
Guidelines for Birdfeeder Care
- Keep Feeders Clean: Seed feeders should be cleaned at least once per month. Nectar feeders should be cleaned each time they are refilled.
- Clean Surrounding Area: In addition to keeping the birdfeeders clean, it is essential to remove spilled seed and hulls.
- Offer Fresh Food: Spoiled food is unhealthy for birds.
- Use Safe Feeders: While cleaning the feeder, inspect it for sharp points or edges that can scratch or cut birds.
- Provide Space: Use multiple feeders and spread them out over a large area to reduce crowding.
- Promote Healthy Birds: Don’t wait until sick or dead birds are seen before cleaning feeders.
For more information, go to https://www.dnr.sc.gov/birds/
Visit the Partners in Flight website at: partnersinflight.org.