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Conservationists send out an SOS for Wisconsin's declining songbirds

A close-up image of a small bird with a gray head and yellow body, perched in a tree.
Ryan Brady
Wisconsin DNR
In 2022, DNR biologists surveyed nesting areas for the Connecticut warbler and found only three breeding pairs.

It’s springtime in Milwaukee. Green is returning to the trees, and so are the birds. Lisa Gaumnitz doesn’t take their song for granted.

“If you wake up in the morning, you hear the birds,” Gaumnitz said. “Think about that, if we didn’t have them. I think a lot of people would miss that, just the joy of seeing and hearing birds.”

As coordinator of the SOS Save Our Songbirds campaign, Gaumnitz is raising awareness around the reality of that fear. Led by several state conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Bird Conservation Partnership, the campaign puts the spotlight on the plight of songbirds — and how people can help from their own homes.

Wisconsin’s songbirds are in trouble. Their numbers have plummeted, echoing national and global trends that are driven by habitat loss, particularly due to agricultural and urban development. The spread of bird flu also has wildlife experts worried, and climate change is expected to make these challenges worse.

Since the 1970s, North America has lost 3 billion birds, according to a landmark study in 2019. That’s almost 30% of how many birds there were 50 years ago.

An extended conversation with Lisa Gaumnitz, coordinator of the SOS Save Our Songbirds campaign.

“The birds that suffered the biggest losses were all the birds we love to see and hear,” Gaumnitz said. “Things like warblers, sparrows, finches, and blackbirds. The researchers said it was urgent to start addressing this.”

After the study came out, a list of seven things people can do to help birds began circulating. Gaumnitz, who spent many years communicating science with the Wisconsin DNR, remembers thinking to herself that seven sounded like a lot.

“I was like, we need to simplify this,” she said. “We will be based on science. But we’re going to also try to meet people where they are with their knowledge and their ability to devote their time to this.”

So, SOS Save Our Songbirds recommends three ways to help reverse the decline of Wisconsin songbirds like the golden-winged warbler or the evening grosbeak.

One, plant native plants in your yard, such as spotted jewelweed or pussy willow.

Two, identify problem windows, such as sliding glass doors, that birds might collide with and bird-proof them with visible film treatments, bird screens, or decals.

In a grassy yard, small seedlings grow in a row of flats.
Lina Tran
The SOS Save Our Songbirds campaign suggests planting bird-friendly, native plants in your yard.

And three, drink bird-friendly coffee.

“About half of Wisconsin’s birds migrate to central and South America, and a lot of the forest there is being cleared away to make more coffee plantations,” Gaumnitz said.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird Friendly program certifies farms that preserve tree canopy. Gaumnitz noted that organic coffee, which is free of pesticides, is another option that serves the health of birds and their surrounding ecosystem.

SOS Save Our Songbirds intends for these everyday steps to ease individuals into the conservation movement. Of course, habitat restoration and other work is ongoing at the state and national level, said DNR conservation biologist Ryan Brady.

“But to really help birds, we’re going to need individuals, we’re going to need private landowners, private homeowners,” he said. “And not just those that like birds, or love birds, but even those that don’t.”

Birds are vital to their ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, and spread seeds far and wide. One vanishing species in particular represents the dire situation that some Wisconsin birds face: the Connecticut warbler, some of which — despite the name — breed in northern Wisconsin, as well as Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada.

In 2019, the DNR's second Breeding Bird Atlas found the warblers' numbers had dropped by about 80 percent. A couple years later, biologists returned to the warbler's favorite jack pine forests and found none of the small, yellow and gray birds.

Last summer, surveyors revisited the warbler's core breeding area. “To our knowledge, the Connecticut warbler has declined in Wisconsin from thousands of breeding individuals to three pairs,” Brady said.

Protecting this biodiversity is critical to life on a warming planet.

“Many of the habitats that these birds depend on serve as carbon sinks to help neutralize carbon emissions,” Brady said. “We need nature and we need to figure out a way to become more compatible with it than we currently are.”

An older white man in sunglasses stands in a backyard and smiles. Behind him, many flats of small seedlings are growing.
Lina Tran
Randy Powers is the owner of Prairie Future Seed Company, which specializes in wildflowers and native gardening.

Out in Sussex, Randy Powers’ lush backyard offers one example of what that compatibility looks like. It’s filled with birdsong and carpeted with wildflowers. Alongside his daughter, Powers runs the Prairie Future Seed Company from here.

Their focus is native plants — those that, for millennia, evolved with the insects and birds that also call Wisconsin home.

“The native wildlife does better with native plants,” Powers said. “I always define horticultural plants and exotic plants as ‘fast food’ and the native plants as ‘slow food.’”

For years, Powers has collected seeds from all over the state. As a child, road-tripping with his family, he was taught to harvest seeds from plants that he liked. And as a college student in the late 60s, he walked thousands of miles of railroad track, combing through prairie remnants for interesting wildflowers.

To attract birds to your yard, Powers suggests cooking up a buffet of slow food.

“Diversity is stability,” he said. “The more diversity you can afford, the stabler your plantings or your garden beds will be.”

Powers cautioned that the label “wildflower” can be misleading and sometimes conceal exotic species from other regions or countries. Closely read labels to be sure seeds you’re getting are actually native to your region, he said.

The plants feed insects, and insects feed birds. But Powers has seen a sharp decline in insects, which he watches at night, attracting them to a white sheet with bright floodlights.

“In the last five years, the number of moths I see each year in this yard has dropped dramatically, probably about 50%,” he said.

In Powers’ verdant yard, as birds sing and swoop overhead, it’s easy to see the importance of these native plants.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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