Constable: As war hangs on hawks, doves and tweets, thankfully suburbs help save birds

  • As the symbol of our nation, bald eagles were endangered until efforts were made to protect them and their habitat. Now they can be seen up and down the Fox River.

      As the symbol of our nation, bald eagles were endangered until efforts were made to protect them and their habitat. Now they can be seen up and down the Fox River. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • A naturalist and author, Joel Greenberg of Westmont displayed his 100-year old stuffed passenger pigeon in 2014 while promoting his book about how the once-thriving species became extinct.

    A naturalist and author, Joel Greenberg of Westmont displayed his 100-year old stuffed passenger pigeon in 2014 while promoting his book about how the once-thriving species became extinct. Daily Herald file photo

  • Once wiped out in Illinois, sandhill cranes have staged a remarkable comeback. This pair strolled through Geneva last July.

      Once wiped out in Illinois, sandhill cranes have staged a remarkable comeback. This pair strolled through Geneva last July. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/9/2020 7:30 AM

When the specter of World War III can hang on a single tweet and the passions of hawks and doves, we can find a haven among the birds of our suburbs.

One of our favorite things to do during my visits with my mom on the family farm in Indiana was to sit in front of the big kitchen window with cups of steaming black coffee and watch the early morning birds gather around an improvised bird feeder my dad had fashioned from a rusty disc blade.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The bright yellow goldfinches were plentiful and quick. Their purple and blue cousins might have been finches, or maybe tanagers. And, of course, there would be an assortment of native sparrows. They'd all scatter with the arrival of an orange-tinged oriole, bright red cardinal or fierce blue jay.

When the morning rush was over, we'd get the cooing mourning doves, which we called "rain crows," the plump cow birds with their velvety brown heads, the occasional brown thrush with its melodious songs, and the less frequent red-bellied woodpecker.

After my mom died in November at age 92, I salvaged one of her poles featuring two bird feeders -- one designed for finches and the small birds, and the other designed for cardinals and heftier fowl -- and set them up in my suburban backyard. Aside from one fleeting cardinal visit, my feeders are entertaining nothing but common house sparrows, a species much like my ancestors, who immigrated here from Europe and pushed aside the native populations.

An article in Science Magazine last October noted that North America has lost 3 billion, or 30%, from our bird populations since 1970, news covered by Jeff Reiter's Daily Herald column and his Words on Birds blog. "The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt," the article warned. Nineteen common species lost more than 50 million birds in the past 50 years, and native sparrows, warblers, finches and blackbirds were hit particularly hard.

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Some of the reasons for the decline include pollution and pesticides, unrestricted killing of birds, habitat loss and invasive species, says Joel Greenberg, a Westmont naturalist and author who knows about the bad and the good.

Greenberg's 2014 book, "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction," published 100 years after the last passenger pigeon died, explains how perhaps the most ubiquitous bird in the land was hunted to extinction in a matter of years.

Sandhill cranes were wiped from the face of Illinois in the 19th century and seemed headed in that same direction. But in 1978, while hiking in Antioch, Greenberg made the groundbreaking discovery of a sandhill crane nest. "Now there are days in the spring and the fall when there are thousands flying over Chicago and the suburbs," he says.

Laws that protect birds and the purity of water and air proved tremendously successful in some cases. "We are blessed, really blessed by having forest preserve districts that have tens of thousands of acres," Greenberg says.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The population of bald eagles, once endangered, is more vibrant than shopping malls in some suburban areas. White pelicans, once rare, are easy to spot on the Chain O' Lakes. Also making a comeback are Cooper's hawks, a species that ironically depends on a diet of birds.

Perhaps the biggest threat to birds is the cat, Greenberg says, urging cat owners to keep their pets inside. Research has estimated cats kill about 2.4 billion birds a year.

My keeping our pet Maggie inside might be the best thing I can do for suburban birds. But the feeders don't hurt.

"It probably doesn't make much of a difference in the survival of a bird on the species level," says Greenberg, who predicts my bird feeders might start attracting more interesting clientele soon. "That's what makes bird watching fun. You never know what you're going to see."

In a world where a tweet might lead to World War III, the real life tweets from suburban birds can be comforting.

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