Birds perish in a brutal spring

Bird populations have dropped sharply.
Bird populations have dropped sharply.

Snow, rain, extreme wind and minimal food sources. It’s been a challenging time for many people, but even more so for wildlife.

Sherrie Versluis Feathered Friends
Sherrie Versluis
Feathered Friends

Mother Nature has been dealing some serious weather this season. From cooler than normal temperatures to extreme rain and then flooding in many areas throughout Manitoba. It has been challenging for many people, but even more so for wildlife.

For migratory birds, the journey to the north this spring was filled with very cold weather, snow, rain, extreme wind and minimal food sources. Trees were not producing buds or blossoms and insects were not plentiful. These combined conditions most likely caused many birds to perish, as populations for many species has proven to be very poor. Insectivores like purple martins and the threatened barn swallows and chimney swifts species all appear to have suffered, as reports have been minimal for all. For those that made it, the insects are plentiful now but the heavy rain washed away many nests. Hopefully the birds will make second nesting attempts.

Monarch butterflies have been a hot topic as their populations have been rapidly dwindling over the past few years. The spring migration did not help their plight as cooler temperatures hindered the growth of milkweed, an essential plant for their survival. To date, I have had fewer than 10 reports of monarch sightings.

Many people went to great lengths developing butterfly gardens and sadly none have arrived to enjoy the offerings. I have acres of land filled with milkweed and other attractive plants, and I have had only one fleeting glimpse of a monarch. No eggs or caterpillars have been sighted anywhere on the property. Very worrisome indeed.

Common loons have had a very testing season as well. One of the worst black fly infestations in the 25 years that loon nests have been monitored occurred this season. This took place throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and into Ontario. There is a species of black fly called Simulium annulus that is particularly attracted to loons. A study published in 2012 determined this black fly was chemically drawn to loons in a relationship described as one of the most exclusive ever documented.

The flies are always a nuisance to loons but this year the numbers were so severe that is was considered an all-out assault. This caused about 30 per cent of all loons to abandon their nests so they could stay in the water and dive under to avoid the swarms of flies. Most loons will nest a second time, but with such a late start the young may not be ready to migrate or withstand the cool fall weather. Incubation time for loons is 30 days. The chicks are not able to fly until they are 11 weeks old.

The flooding throughout Manitoba has made for a difficult nesting season for shorebirds. The rising water levels washed away the nests of many bird species. The southwestern areas of the province received 200 to 215 millimetres of rain in a four-day period, accompanied by winds up to 70 kilometres an hour.

The Oak Lake area in particular is an amazing area, filled with marshes, wetlands, meadows and forest. The habitat accommodates many species of birds but is especially noted for large colonies of Franklin’s gulls, eared grebes and black-crowned night herons. Cattle, great and snowy egrets are also residents of the area along with white-faced ibis, blue-winged teal and redheads (a diving duck species), to name a few.

The majority of these species had their nests washed away in massive numbers. Water levels are still so high that even those who may attempt a second nest will have a hard time finding suitable habitat for nest building.

Songbirds and their small nests suffered a poor fate as well throughout the province, as the wind and rain was just too much for their nests to hold. Most birds will attempt a second nest and will hopefully be spared any further extreme weather.

Nature can be spectacular even in times of extreme weather. It is amazing how weather can produce catastrophic events like flooding and insect invasions with such severity. What is even more fascinating is the way the creatures caught up in that fury persist and keep on fighting, following their instincts to survive, and often succeed.


2 thoughts on “Birds perish in a brutal spring”

  1. I’ve spent all summer trying to fatten up all of my yard critters. I even went from 1 hummingbird feeder to 5.
    Poor little beasties! And my poor shrubs…I’ve babied them all summer too!

  2. Greetings Sherrie Versluis: I just read your column “Birds Perish in a Brutal Spring” and was very interested in the area of the article about Monarch Butterflies. I had to let you know that I had a wonderful siting on Mon. Aug. 11th in the A.M. when a mature Monarch landed on my flower pot on the deck – the flowers are called Lantana one is “Blaze” and the other is “sunrise rose”. I couldn’t believe my eyes and it stayed and fed on the flowers for quite a long time. But it has not come back since. I was so excited !!!

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