Starling flocks are disappearing, Christmas Bird Count numbers show

Christmas Bird Count sends dozens of birders across the city, and a few rare finds

By Clare Bonnyman, CBC News Posted: Dec 27, 2016 2:55 PM ET

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A tufted titmouse was among the rare sightings at this year’s Christmas Bird Count, put on by the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. (Joy Pvrdy)

Birders across the city reported seeing fewer starlings — and pretty much every other bird — during the 96th Christmas Bird Count.

Dozens of bird lovers flocked together across the city on Boxing Day for the annual tally put on by the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club, and noticed a consistent decrease in populations all around.

“We might have close to the 30,000 we had last year as this trend continues, perhaps even less,” said Rob Porter, head of field events with the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club and Digital Naturalist.

Invasive species in decline

The bird count provides data from thousands of groups worldwide, informing future studies and research for the National Audobon Society in the U.S., and Bird Studies Canada.

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“It’s a single snapshot in a single day of a single year,” said Porter. “But there has definitely been a trend in fewer species every year for a while now.”

This year, the big surprise was a serious decline in Hamilton’s starling population. The invasive species, which in the 1980s or 90s used to be tens of thousands strong here, has been in serious decline.

“The flocks aren’t really around anymore,” said Porter, though the answer why is unclear.

“Is it indicative of predators balancing things off finally, or is there something they’re eating that isn’t good for them? Certainly we’re seeing magnitudes less.”

Uncommon findings across the city

This year, despite the highest temperature on records and a rainy forecast, birders saw a number of rare feathered friends, including a tufted titmouse and an orange-crowned warbler.

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The Northern Goshawk was another rare find, said Rob Porter. “We haven’t seen any since 2011, so it was a nice sighting.” (Norbert Kenntner)

“This was a weird year,” said Porter, remarking on the Boxing Day record high of 11.5 C. Unfortunately for the bird count, the rain was no surprise.

“Our count is kind of unlucky in that in the last 20 years, we’ve only had two days of sun, and they were both in a row in 2004 and 2005.”

But the rainy day still brought around 90 people out to see such uncommon birds as a northern goshawk, which hasn’t been spotted in the area since 2011. Birders spotted the red-winged blackbird at Cootes Paradise, as well as one alone in downtown Hamilton.

“Most years we get one, maybe two, but someone reported seeing a whole flock of 10,” said Porter.

Other Canadian communities have struggled with how to control starling populations in recent years. In 2013, municipalities in Okanagan, B.C., rounded up 500,000 of the invasive birds and killed them because of their impact on farmers’ fruit trees.

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