Impassioned ornithologist John Marzluff has combed the United States — specifically the suburbs that ring large cities — to research what our feathered friends are up to. The result, “Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife” (Yale University Press), is surprising, uplifting and somewhat cautionary.
Marzluff, who is based at the University of Washington, starts the book in his own backyard on the outskirts of Seattle, where at 3 a.m. on a frigid January morning, he listens to two great horned owls exchange interrogatory territorial calls that happen to sound literal. Whoooo, says one, and in the distance the other asks the same.
In his well-researched book, he tells us what those of us living in urban areas can observe steps from our back doors, how it has worked out that way and how to enhance bird diversity and numbers. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: The wordplay in the book title is deliberately suggestive. What does that tell readers they should expect inside?
A: I hope it says that where they live is pretty darn rich in birds – in the variety, abundance and activity of the birds in that area.
Q: Would most people who read your book be surprised by what they learn?
A: I think they would, and that’s really the point for me – to encourage people to get out and look and not just ignore the richness around them, or feel that they have to go to the ends of the Earth to see nature, and birds specifically.
Q: You mention in the book that despite the overall loss of biodiversity we still have a lot to celebrate. So you’re saying that things aren’t as dire as people might think?
A: I don’t want to downplay the losses that have occurred and probably will accelerate in the future. But on the flip side, it’s important to understand that a lot of animals, especially birds because of their mobility and their general lifestyles, are able to live with us and exploit and adapt to our activities.
Q: Your breakdown of birds as exploiters, adaptors and avoiders makes it easier to understand what’s happening in suburban ecosystems. How do those designations take form?
A: The avoiders, it’s pretty easy to grasp that. They’re the ones that don’t do well with us. When we occupy certain places on Earth those are the species that drop out. Warblers are the classic avoiders. We do gain species that can adapt to our actions, like the junco, so the overall diversity increases. The exploiters are a pretty small group but are absolutely closely tied to our presence, and those are birds that tend to have house or barn in their name, like the house sparrow.
Q: From the perspective of the book, classic sprawling English lawns must drive you crazy.
A: They kill me. If there’s one thing we can do to increase the ability of other animals to live in the places we do it’s to get rid of lawns. A little patch here and there for robins or for us to play soccer on is fine, but it is just out of control. That’s the message. That’s not subirdia. That’s suburbia. But that’s what could be converted for a lot of win-win. People could spend less time on lawns, less energy and generate greater carbon storage. Almost anything about the lawn comes out as a negative for the environment.
Q: Are you familiar with the Chicago area in regard to bird life?
A: Chicago has done some great things. They have a very strong awareness program (Lights Out Chicago sponsored by the Audubon Society) for bright light (on tall buildings to reduce bird collisions). There’s been a change in that behavior, and that will certainly help a lot of migratory birds.
Q: Where does the Chicago area’s ecosystem fit in the context of your book?
A: It’s a really important one. It’s at this interface of forest and grassland, plus has a big lake, so there’s a huge migratory route there that a lot of species require and therefore come in close contact with residents. You have grassland species very close by; prairie chickens typically have declined with our activities, but some, like grouse and quail, can do quite well with our disturbance.
You also have the Chicago Wilderness Initiative there, which really has provided a lot of important remnants of habitat within the city and suburbs, and that’s the real key to increasing diversity. Go to those places and you can see all manner of birds. And by having those birds around you also get spillover into the neighborhoods.
You have aquatic, forest and Great Plains species there, plus development has included a valuing of green space for people, but also for the animals that utilize them. By maintaining the unique and interesting habitats around your area, more prairie and meadow habitats, that’s what’s key.
Q: How big of a problem are domestic cats?
A: It’s got to be the No. 1 problem in terms of (bird deaths). The whole idea is to increase the size of the habitat in which birds can live with us, and then take out the limiting factors – and No. 1 in order of magnitude is the house cat. The median average (of birds killed by house cats) is 2.4 billion. Keep your house cats in the house. Even if they get out and don’t kill birds, just their presence will reduce the birds’ tending of their nests.
Q: You list nine commandments for people if they want to support bird life. What’s the common thread running across those?
A: It’s more like three threads:
Increase the habitat. The more native the better, but it doesn’t have to be all native. And increase the connections of those habitats. So, habitat first.
Reducing mortality is second: That’s the cats and (bird collisions with) windows and lights that are well-documented hazards.
Third, get out there and enjoy the nature around you and bond with it so you will care for it.
Sustainability is all about people and their attitudes, wonder and care, and their understanding of the benefits of having wildlife around, which is economic as well as social and aesthetic. We did a study here in Seattle and found that people spend $120 million a year on bird food, feeders and nest boxes. And that’s just what the people we asked told us. One in every five people in the U.S. feeds birds.
The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service has a bounty of information on birds, and what homeowners and gardeners can do to protect and attract migratory as well as year-round species, at fws.gov/migratorybirds (type “home for birds” in the search field). Included on the site are the best bird feeders for specific species.
To learn how to prevent bird collisions with windows (the cause of millions of avian deaths), go to another great site, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (birds.cornell.edu and type “window collisions” in the search field).
Including native plants in your landscaping helps birds and wildlife. Here are just a few of the plants suggested by the Chicago Wilderness Initiative: viburnum, native phlox, juneberry, blazing star, sedges, native asters, purple coneflower. Learn more at (chicagowilderness.org).
The National Audubon Society website has information for gardeners who want to create bird-friendly habitats for year-round species and the migratory birds passing through in fall and spring.