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What the flock? Granite Staters say they’re noticing fewer birds. Here’s what might be going on.

A tufted titmouse on a bird feeder.
Matthew Lavin, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
A tufted titmouse on a bird feeder.

Sean O’Brien works in the education center at the University of New Hampshire’s cooperative extension, where people come to ask questions about things they’re seeing in nature. And recently, people have been flocking to the help line with a common concern.

“They're wondering, ‘What's going on here, where have all these birds gone?’” he said.

After a few dozen calls, O’Brien decided to start looking for answers.

Most people know that birds migrate, and that’s one reason there may be fewer to spot in New Hampshire right now. But this year, something else is going on. It’s a mast year, which means oak trees are producing a lot more acorns than usual, providing a feast for wildlife – including birds.

“So what that means is that the birds don't typically come into open spaces as much, into your yard, because there's just a ton of food in the forest,” said O’Brien, who works as a home horticulture project manager at the extension.

Mast years happen in two- to five-year cycles, but scientists don’t know why they happen, he said.

Birds are also suffering from the effects of climate change, like increasing temperatures and habitat changes. The National Audubon Society reports that more than half of U.S. bird species are declining, and 70 species have lost half or more of their breeding population since 1970.

Birds that migrate far distances seem to be most affected by climate change and habitat loss, O’Brien said.

“It's birds like thrushes, tanagers and Baltimore Orioles who fly really, really far distances – think Caribbean, South America, those sorts of places – those are the ones that are having a more difficult time,” he said.

Birds that stay in New England over the winter – like owls, crows, woodpeckers, ravens, and grouse – are faring better.

“Birds are in decline in general,” he said. “It's going to differ year to year. But I would expect to see fewer birds overall.”

People can support birds in a few ways, O’Brien said. Growing native plants – and making sure 70% of a garden is native perennials – is a big help, he said, as well as avoiding pesticides. Keeping cats indoors helps, too.

“I would recommend that people just keep paying attention to birds,” O’Brien said. “They're such an important part of life in New Hampshire, for us and for the rest of the natural environment here.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.