Among recent, local sightings of urban raptors in Connecticut, we’ve seen red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, ospreys, barred owls, great-horned owls, Cooper’s hawks and now, peregrine falcons—one of the fastest birds in the world.
Adult peregrine falcons have long, blue-gray primary feathers on their backs, which give them a long-winged shape, and black and white feathers on their chest. Their appearance is so striking—it underscores their power.
Ornithologist and hawk-watching expert Donald S. Heintzelman says some peregrine falcons use tall buildings or large bridges as nest sites from which they soar over cities to prey on pigeons or other medium-sized birds.
They’re among the most perfectly evolved and adapted birds. Along coastal areas, they enjoy open space and feed on shorebirds and ducks.
These falcons have rebounded from being eradicated from eastern North America in the mid-20th century when people, from farmers to gardeners, obsessed with insect control, began using the pesticide DDT. DDT caused falcons’ egg shells to become too fragile to hatch.
Finally, in 1972, DDT was deemed so harmful it was banned.
Studies showed not only adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife, but also revealed a relationship between DDT exposure and reproductive effects in humans.
Thanks to recovery efforts of carefully raising and releasing 6,000 falcon chicks in the wild, falcon numbers increased and were removed from the endangered species list in 1999.
So, who else might we save along with ourselves when we value and protect insects and pollinators? Almost everywhere, birds must eke out a living in human-dominated landscapes designed for our use without any thought about what birds, insects, pollinators and other animals need to thrive.
The promising news that we’ve learned from Doug Tallamy, entomology and wildlife professor at the University of Delaware, is that although insect populations have declined 45 percent globally since 1974, which threatens a functioning ecosystem, we can quickly restore the complex food webs that provide birds with insect protein if we plant native species as landscape plants rather than non-native ornamentals.
Native annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs and trees attract 15 times more native insects than non-native ornamentals, and birds are among the best insecteaters.
Also, those insects attract, as Tallamy says, “A diversity of predators, parasites and diseases that keep their populations in check.” So, it operates as a natural system. In contrast, he says, “We run into trouble when we landscape with plants that support very few herbivores, because then there usually is not enough food to keep insect predators and parasitoids, as well as hungry birds, nearby.”
When there is an outbreak of one of many insects we’ve imported like Japanese beetles, along with Asian ornamentals, there are not enough natural enemies to control them. This, Tallamy writes, “helps explain why as much as four times more pesticide by weight is applied to suburban landscapes than to the agricultural landscape in the U.S.”
All of us agree that there’s too much habitat destruction and that plants, insects, birds and animals have suffered as a result. We can help reverse that loss by making our own wildlife preserves on private properties that sustain plants, birds and other animals while fighting for the same on public lands.
We all need healthy ecosystems, and birds are an indicator of the quality of our environment. Most backyard birds are predators who thrive on caterpillars, insects and more when a complex food web that creates their nourishment exists. That means eschewing lawn and garden pesticides and weed-killers.
It means using compost for organic matter, or organic fertilizers that don’t harm pollinators, birds, or animals and marine life. You can make simple changes to your landscape and your attitude to keep insects on the ground, in the air and on your plants.
Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, has presided over the international, non-profit animal advocacy organization since 1987. She has also served as president of the San Antonio-based sanctuary Primarily Primates and is a food activist and author of three vegan cookbooks.