There are a record number of piping plovers – the endangered shorebirds – nesting in Maine this year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Some wildlife ‘thriving in our absence’

Our (Portland) yard has enjoyed an explosion of songbirds this spring. Anyone else notice the increase? Can’t help but wonder if it has to do with the reduced pollution during the stay-at-home orders.

— Robert O’Brien, Portland

One silver lining from the stay-at-home orders is our reduced carbon emissions, though we still have a long way to go to meet state and international goals of reducing warming to only 1.5 degrees C by 2030. An important thing to remember is that wildlife has always been here. It is only our reduced activity, and perhaps increased awareness, that is increasing the reporting and detection of these critters.

Birds are an especially interesting group of animals to think about with COVID-19 measures in mind. I don’t think any short-term reduction in pollution is contributing to an explosion of songbirds. However, one of the most limiting factors in our detection of birds is noise. So we could possibly claim that reduced noise pollution – from fewer cars on the road, planes in the air, and many of the other loud noises humans create – is helping increase our detection of birds.

This spring has been atypical for timing, and behavior, of many of our birds. We’ve had some strange weather including strong winds and even a snowstorm that had to hit during the World Series of Birding on May 9. Wet conditions to our south have held up a lot of the neotropic migrants, making this spring an overall mixed bag for timing of arrivals. The benefit (to us, not the birds) is that many of these insect-eating migrants are arriving in Maine and not finding food easily because of the foul weather.

Instead, they are finding food more readily at bird feeders – especially suet for those insectivores – and are more visible to us. Some readers might remember this happening last year to a greater degree; it was a very wet and fairly cold start to May and that drove a lot of birds, notable tanagers, to feeders. Apparently people didn’t notice that as much because they weren’t stuck at home!

As COVID-related closures and distancing measures are lifted, I hope we can all keep in mind the impacts that we are having on wildlife. Now is the breeding season for most of Maine’s wildlife, so let’s try not to be disruptive during this crucial period. Piping plovers nesting on Maine’s sandy beaches are a prime example: 100 pairs and 60 active nests as of May 20 is a fantastic start for plovers, and they’ve accomplished this while beaches have been essentially vacant. When your local beaches, preserves, or parks reopen, consider the impact you are having on the wildlife that has been thriving in our absence.

Guinea fowl are often kept as pets. The free-ranging birds often prey on ticks as they cruise through grassy areas and shrubs. So if you see one, there’s a good chance it didn’t migrate here. Dean Fosdick/Associated Press

That strange sighting could be an escaped pet

We saw a guinea fowl in our backyard in Portland yesterday. It was eating bird seed I put out on the ground for the birds and squirrels. It was not concerned with our presence. We had never seen one before. How common are they here?

— Carla Ham, Portland

I love seeing this question because it is a great opportunity to talk about how often pets escape – which in all likelihood the source of your backyard bird. At Maine Audubon, we get a lot of reports of bird sightings from around the state, and while most are wild, it is always entertaining when the occasional escapee is found.

This is most common with game birds, which are often raised by the state or clubs, and released for hunting, usually at farms and wildlife management areas. Ring-necked pheasants are especially common; around 2,000 birds were released in the fall of 2019. Most are harvested or unlikely to survive the winter, but occasionally they make it and become a backyard bird, even visiting bird feeders. Northern bobwhite are also released in Maine, and chukar patridge has apparently become more popular – or they are becoming better escape artists – as the numbers reported to us are increasing. These species have attempted breeding in the wild in Maine but don’t appear to be successful in establishing themselves, which, from an ecological perspective, is not a bad thing.

Guinea fowl are increasingly popular as domesticated pets because they do a great job controlling pests. At least, I can’t imagine it’s because of their looks or sounds (subjectively, hideous and loud). They eat a lot of insects, will help control tick populations, and reportedly will even hunt small rodents as a flock.

The list becomes longer when we look at other free-flying, once-captive birds. Monk parakeets are establishing populations around some New England metropolitan areas, though not currently in Maine. Pet African collared-doves occasionally show up at bird feeders, which is a better alternative than the invasive Eurasian collared-dove that has yet to get a toehold in Maine. And I also remember a “rare” bird I found at Maine Audubon’s Falmouth headquarters: I heard an unfamiliar call, and knew it was something new. A quick flash as it flew toward the woods but finally I got on it . . . a zebra finch! This little guy could barely fly across our trail and certainly didn’t make it here from its home range in Australia.

You never know what you’ll find, but hopefully it isn’t someone’s pet.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit www.maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes, and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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