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Frank Gray

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
A black-capped chickadee sits in a tree and eats sunflower seeds.

Where have the birds gone?

A man called the other day with a curious observation.

For days now, he said, he hadn’t seen any birds, and he hadn’t heard any birds singing. He had spent the morning in his garden, and there wasn’t a single bird around.

Come to think of it, I said, I haven’t seen a lot of birds myself. Usually the birds make a racket in the morning, chirping and sharpening their beaks on my gutters, sounding like a nest of rats in my eaves, but the mornings have been almost silent lately.

I walked outside and looked up and noticed that the birds that normally gathered by the score on power lines were missing. Usually this time of year you see birds by the hundreds, even thousands, flocking. But there wasn’t a bird in the sky.

I called the local chapter of the Audubon Society, which is made up of bird watchers who keep a count on all the different varieties of birds they have spotted.

One member mused that it is possible the food supply had collapsed, possibly the result of the drought, and the birds just left. In these parts, the robins disappeared six weeks ago, I was told.

Society members referred me to a man named James Haw, who said he could only guess what’s going on.

Birds sing a lot in the spring and summer to attract mates and defend their nesting territories, he said, but in the fall they sing less. That could explain the silence.

He said, though, he does think the bird population is down locally. At his bird feeders, for example, “a few days ago they just quit coming in.”

In general, Haw said, there are just fewer birds than there used to be.

If anyone would know what’s going on, I figured, it would be Ben Roush, who’s been selling bird seed at Wild Birds Unlimited for the last 28 years. Is the bird population down, or am I just spending too much time locked up in a room with no windows?

“It’s certainly at the top of my list of possible concerns,” Roush said.

“All we can go on is customer comments,” Roush said, and many customers are saying the birds aren’t there.

But Roush can only speculate on what’s going on. It was a hard season for birds, with the extreme heat and lack of rain from the spring through July, he said. That could have affected brood size, and a large number of nestlings could have died due to the heat or dehydration.

“We could have had a food supply collapse, but we had a nice recovery” in August, when it started raining again and plants started growing.

For Roush, one important measure is the amount of seed he has sold.

“We’re down almost 40 percent,” Roush said. “That doesn’t happen. You don’t see these kind of swings. Why do we have 500 fewer customers?

“We’re all trying to figure this out. Is it the economy? Are people worried about the election? … We really don’t know.”

Maybe, I suggested, the combination of the hot summer and the storm that knocked out power for a week in June and July and caused people to lose all the food in their refrigerators and freezers left people thinking abut themselves and not birds. That might explain the drop in seed sales, but not the lack of birds.

Who knows? The birds seem to be gone.

Some birds don’t migrate, though. Many never stray much more than a mile from where they hatched and live here year round, Roush said.

“This is always the time of year we encourage people to start a feeding program,” Roush said. “The birds try to fatten up and identify food sources.”

If there are any birds left to be fed. As my caller said, he hadn’t even seen a house wren in days.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter (@FrankGrayJG).

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