Rain threatens birds

By Kate Crowley
As the floodwaters recede, a stunned and relieved populace can finally stop holding their collective breath. Throughout southern Carlton County and all of Pine County there is a sense of disbelief that only four years after a major flood event, it has happened again.  At our home we measured over 8” of rain in less than 24 hours. This is what the word deluge was meant to describe. Others said it felt like they were in the middle of a monsoon.
Thankfully there was no loss of life in our region, but property damage and loss was significant for people who have in some cases finally recovered and remodeled after the flood of 2012, which was said to be a once in 100 years flood when 8 to 10 inches of rain were spread over three days.
Here in Willow River, there was fear that the small dam holding back the waters of the river would fail, with catastrophic results. Roads throughout the two counties (and into Wisconsin) were hard hit and the cost to repair them is going to be far beyond what has been budgeted for maintenance.
We are living in a time when the rules are changing, along with the climate and it is going to require a lot of thoughtful planning and sometimes painful choices to adapt to this new reality. I can only imagine the anxiety people living along one of our rivers or near Moosehead Lake will feel when future storms come through.  But as humans we have a range of options when it comes to adapting to our surroundings; wildlife on the other hand are far more limited.
When we are in the middle of an emergency like this most recent storm, our thoughts are focused on the people who we may or may not know that are suffering. Once the immediate threat is past, we have time to look around and assess the damage and its potential effect on other life forms.
This most recent storm came at a time when most of the songbirds have finished nesting, but just barely.  It is in early July that young fledglings are seen following their parents around and begging to be fed, even as they have the means to fly and hopefully feed themselves.  The woods are full of these inexperienced, still dependent young.  Around our home during that day of downpours, we thought a lot about the birds and how they were sheltering from the nonstop rain. Water poured off our eaves making waterfalls that the hummingbirds had to fly through to get to their feeders. The other feeders in the yard were devoid of activity, except when there was a lull in the rain and then birds mobbed them, trying to gulp some seeds down while they could.  The rest of the time we imagine they were hunkered down in some foliage, with feathers fluffed up, trying their best to keep their bodies warm and dry. 
For those birds that might have still been incubating eggs or feeding nestlings, the ground nesters would have been most threatened.  I didn’t realize how many this would include until I looked them up and for our area. They include the following;  Brown Thrasher, Veery,  Black-and-White warbler, Golden-winged warbler, Nashville warbler, Palm warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning warbler, Wilson’s warbler, Ovenbird, Canada warbler, Wilson's warbler, Eastern Towhee, Vesper sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow, and Song sparrow. Even in areas that didn’t flood, this would have been a very challenging time.  In the cattail marshes where the waters rose Red-winged blackbirds and the Sedge and Marsh Wrens would have suffered losses.
Since we will never know the actual outcome for these many bird species, we can only hope they survived and will return next year to try again.  It is probably too late in the season for most of these species to re-nest.  
As for the forests and wetlands impacted by this most recent flood, they will recover and may provide new habitat for birds in the future.  After the 2012 flood, many people moved away from floodplains creating more habitat for wildlife.  Ducks, herons and other wading birds may find more areas to forage for fish and invertebrates.  In the long run, it is not floods such as this one that have the greatest negative impact on the birds; it is deforestation and the use of chemicals in the environment that will really determine their long term survival.
As we reluctantly learn to live with this new weather paradigm, we can help ourselves and all wildlife by restoring wetlands and protecting wider stream corridors, thus reducing flood impacts for humans, improving water quality and creating better and more wildlife habitat.


  1. And, in the long run, it is deforestation and the use of chemicals in the environment that will really determine OUR long-term survival.


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