Disappearing Songbirds Need Help To Survive

by TerryMcNamee

Songbird populations in North America have dropped as much as 80 percent, according to a recent Audubon study. There are many reasons, but two stand out: loss of habitat and food.

By Terry McNamee © 2013

Compared to a few decades ago, birds have vanished. Spring birdsong has been almost silenced, declining from a deafening noise to occasional songs. In spring and fall, when migrating birds should be everywhere, they are noticeably absent. Where have all the birds gone, why are they vanishing and what can be done to bring their populations back?

Baltimore Oriole. This pretty songbird is steadily declining in numbers.
Baltimore Oriole painted by Terry McNamee © 2011
Baltimore Oriole painted by Terry McNamee © 2011

Habitat Destruction and Non-Native Plants Impact Songbird Populations

City parks and landscaped yards used to be havens for both resident and migrating birds. Those micro-habitats still exist, but the birds are gone. Their larger habitats that would have held the bulk of their population have been destroyed: forests bulldozed or clear-cut, wetlands filled in, natural meadows planted with crops they can’t eat or replaced by a housing development or strip mall.

Birds, bugs and plants evolve together in their habitats, and all need each other to survive. The replacement of native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs with imported and exotic plants from other parts of the world has helped cause a crisis in the songbird population by breaking the chain of interdependence amongst native species. Bottom line? No bugs, no birds.

Here is one example. In Ontario, Canada, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was imported as a pretty garden plant. It was wonderful, because it was resistant to pests. Then loosestrife seeds spread outside of gardens and into the wild.

In no time, loosestrife began colonizing wetlands. Bugs, birds and animals didn’t eat it. In a few years, the hardy invader had crowded out the native plants. Wetlands once filled with a great diversity of animals, birds and insects turned silent. No frogs. No dragonflies. No herons. No blackbirds. Nothing but silence.

Clear-cut forests once filled with a variety of plants and species of trees are often replanted with acres upon acres of identical trees. The living forest with all its interdependent species of wildlife has been replaced with the equivalent of a sterile tree factory.

Invasive purple loosestrife has crowded out native plants in this Massachusets wetland.
Flowering purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Boxborough, Massachusetts, USA, in August 2007
Flowering purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Boxborough, Massachusetts, USA, in August 2007
Photographed by Liz West, posted in Wikimedia Commons

How Individuals Can Help Restore Native Habitat

This isn’t the only solution, but it is one way to help. When adding or replacing plants in a yard or garden, make an effort to use as many native species as possible. Native birds need native plants to survive. The plants need to be native to a particular habitat. A Colorado spruce is not native to southern Ontario.

In southern Ontario, there is a narrow strip of Carolinian forest zone, which stretches from Niagara Region and Windsor right down into the southern United States. People living in this unique ecological niche can grow a wide variety of plants, but this has a negative effect by enabling people to grow many exotic plants. Instead, people should increase biodiversity by using native species.

Here are a few examples of Carolinian trees and shrubs that would be much better for this area’s ecology: pawpaw (Asimina triloba), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), witch-hazel, flowering dogwood and eastern redbud. There are many more.

Among the hundreds of native Carolinian Zone flowers are jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), trillium (Trillium grandifolium), Dutchman’s breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit, blazing star, wild bergamot, bee balm and black-eyed Susan. Many, like the wildlife that depend on them, are endangered. (Be careful planting some in an area frequented by pets, because some are toxic.)

Check with a local conservation organization for names of plants for specific ecological zones. You will be surprised by the variety of plants available.

Another way to help is by being very careful with the use of chemicals on your farm, lawn or garden, especially herbicides and insecticides. Look for natural controls whenever possible to avoid poisoning birds.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) are native to North America's mixed grass prairies and make attractive garden plants.
Purple coneflowers in Ontario
Purple coneflowers in Ontario

Larger Native Habitat Will Attract Songbirds

You can help by making your town or municipality aware of the importance of creating natural habitat suitable to your area. When new plantings are planned in municipal areas and parks, suggest that native plants be used instead of exotics. You can even ask your Town Council to require developers to use native trees for landscaping when they build new houses. Ask your local newspaper to do a story about the need to use native flowers, shrubs and trees to give songbirds a place to live and raise their nestlings.


If a neighbourhood works together to replace imported species with native species, one tiny habitat can become a larger one. If an entire town pledges to plant only native trees and shrubs when putting in new landscaping and parks, that habitat grows bigger. If a region or county makes an effort, there will be a continuous corridor of native habitat that will be a rest area for migrants and large enough to support a breeding population for many songbirds.


That’s a lot of “ifs”, but here’s another one. If it isn't done soon, the songbirds so familiar to previous generations will not be there for the next one.

The once-common Eastern Mewadiowlark (Sturnella magna) is now listed as endangered in Canada due to habitat loss.
Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella Magna), Florida, USA
The golden-winged warbler has been declining sharply in numbers since 1966.
A Golden-Winged Warbler (Vermivora Chrysoptera) Singing on a Branch, Ontario, Canada

Suggested Reading

Want to learn more about how songbird populations are plummeting and how to help in the recovery effort? Here are some books you might enjoy.

Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World's Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them

Wood thrush, Kentucky warbler, the Eastern kingbird--migratory songbirds are disappearing at a frightening rate. By some estimates, we may already have lost almost half of the s...

View on Amazon

Easy to Build Birdhouses - A Natural Approach: Must Know Info to Attract and Keep the Birds You W...

A Nature-Friendly Way to Attract and House BirdsBirdhouses are a favorite project among woodworkers. Made of inexpensive materials, they are quick to build and a pleasure for th...

View on Amazon

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird

Taking the reader from the mountains of Appalachia to a coffee plantation near Bogotá, Colombia, this investigation into the plight of the cerulean warbler—a tiny migratory song...

View on Amazon

Silent Summer: The State of Wildlife in Britain and Ireland

Over the past 20 years dramatic declines have taken place in UK insect populations. Eventually, such declines must have knock-on effects for other animals, especially high profi...

View on Amazon

Updated: 04/25/2013, TerryMcNamee
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TerryMcNamee on 05/28/2013

It might look so pretty that others would copy it! I left part of my large back yard to go into a natural meadow.

BrendaReeves on 05/28/2013

I didn't think of the herbicides killing birds. I just put some down in my front yard today. I would much rather have birds than grass. I live in Kentucky and everyone has these massive grass lawns. I would like to turn mine into a cottage garden for the birds and butterflies. I don't think my neighbors would appreciate it though and it would look funny in the neighborhood, but maybe I'd start a trend.

dustytoes on 04/26/2013

I live in a very nature conscious area of the country (NH) and there are lots of birds, but I don't see much variety. I am trying to fill my yard with native plants and flowers to attract birds. They help keep the bugs down in summer, and I am an organic gardener. I'd hate to see our songbirds disappear. Your example of the loosestrife is a great wake-up call.

katiem2 on 04/25/2013

Oh how important. I love birds. I provide all sorts of feeders and water supplies and enjoy seeing lots of wonderful creatures. Some of my favorites I see every year are; blue jays, cardinals, red or purple and yellow finch's, hummingbirds and morning doves or doves of some sort. I also have geese drop by for a visit during their travels. Great article!

Ann on 04/24/2013

Haven't seen a House Finch in a few years. Sad! Very true! Well done article!

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