Researchers say North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970. Installing a bird box in your yard could help South Carolina birds, like the barred owl (above). | Photo by Ross Appel

Charleston City Councilman Ross Appel has photographed birds for the past five years to disconnect, slow down and appreciate what nature has to offer. 

Appel

“The Lowcountry is a beautiful place with incredible wildlife — if you know where to look,” Appel told the Charleston City Paper

North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

“These losses are an unacceptable tragedy and must serve as a wake-up call for all of humanity,” said Appel, who lives in West Ashley. 

“Birds are dynamic, resilient animals — but they need us to chill out,” he said. “Let’s give them a chance by dedicating ourselves to meaningful conservation investments for future generations.”

South Carolina bird conservationists say it’s not too late to do your part to help sustain the birds that migrate to and nest in South Carolina. 

The City Paper spoke with S.C. wildlife advocates to hear how the Charleston community can take steps to increase food supply, habitats and safety for Lowcountry bird populations.

Make your property more supportive of wildlife

Conservationist Jay Keck of Chapin, South Carolina, said birds changed his life. 

Keck

“I was hooked,” Keck told the City Paper. “As I began to learn more and more about birds and why they were here, I also learned the challenges they have and how many of them are in decline.” 

As a habitat manager with the South Carolina Wildlife Federation since 2018 in Columbia, Keck has educated communities on how to enhance properties such as libraries, churches, schools and corporate headquarters to be more hospitable to wildlife habitats. 

  • Learn more about creating wildlife-friendly landscapes in your backyard, public parks and community gardens by visiting the National Wildlife Federation at nwf.org to find the certification requirements for its Garden for Wildlife programs.

Installing bird boxes is another way to make properties more sustainable for birds, said Charleston conservationist Jennifer McCarthy Tyrrell of Audubon South Carolina.

Tyrrell

Charleston area species that benefit from bird boxes include the Eastern bluebird, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, great crested flycatcher, brown-headed nuthatch, Eastern screech owl, barred owl and wood duck, said Tyrrell, the organization’s engagement manager. Wild Birds Unlimited stores carry species-specific boxes at its Mount Pleasant, West Ashley and Summerville locations. 

  • Visit NestWatch.org to learn how to get involved by building a bird box or donating to the cause.

Top killers of birds include outdoor domestic cats and window strikes from birds colliding with buildings, Keck said. Keeping cats indoors and using methods to make windows less reflective for birds are game-changers for bird populations struggling to survive. 

“I talk to groups of people all the time and ask, ‘How many people in here have ever had a bird run into their window?’ ” Tyrrell added. “Almost every single person raises their hand, which really speaks to the wide breadth of the issue.”

  • Visit the National Audubon Society at audubon.org to learn how to reduce window collisions.

Reduce pesticides and increase native plants

People don’t have to do anything grand to help out birds, Keck said. For example, some of the most effective things people can do is stop using toxic pesticides outdoors and add native plants to their yards. 

“If we reduce pesticides going into our lawns — which eventually make it into waterways — that can increase the insects, which increases the birds’ food source,” he said. “Something as simple as that — that’s conservation.”

And it’s not as if everyone will be inundated by mosquitos, Keck added. Minimizing pesticide use supports leaf hoppers, moths and butterflies. 

“Birds rely heavily on insects and because we plant so many non-native species like crape myrtles and Asian azaleas, the insect population is taking a nosedive,” Tyrrell added. “Birds don’t have enough insects to feed their chicks to actually raise them out of the nest.” 

Keck also said to purchase native plants at local plant nurseries, such as Roots and Shoots Nursery in West Ashley which has more than 175 native varieties. 

He added that just learning about birds is a step in the right direction to valuing their existence. 

Don’t disturb shore birds

Endangered shore birds that nest on Charleston shores include least terns, brown pelicans, black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers and oyster catchers, Tyrrell said. 

“Shore birds are losing habitat very quickly due to sea level rise, climate change and human disturbances that kill chicks or scare nesters away from protecting their eggs which then cook in the sun,” Tyrrell said. 

You can volunteer with Audubon S.C.’s Shorebirds Stewards program to help protect shore bird colonies during nesting season by discouraging people from walking through flocks or letting dogs off the leash. 

“Walking through the birds’ [habitat] increases their stress levels,” she said. “It takes away from their foraging time and might encourage them to move on to a different place that maybe isn’t as productive for food sources. So you don’t want to mess with them.”

  • Check out the National Audubon Society’s Bird-Friendly Communities and Lights Out programs at audubon.org to learn how to be more hospitable to birds in urban and suburban environments.

“Turning the lights out during migration seasons is really important because birds migrate at night to avoid predators,” Tyrrell said. “Birds use the moon and the stars and different solar cues to navigate, and lights disorient them.”

Nurture avian appreciation 

Lanham

The City Paper also caught up with conservation and cultural ornithologist J. Drew Lanham of Clemson University after his Dec. 8 visit to ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge south of Charleston.

“All of those birds on that National Wildlife Refuge are there in large part because of something that every single person can do: purchase a migratory waterfowl stamp, or a federal duck stamp,” Lanham said. “A large proportion of the money [generated from] duck stamps goes back into the till for conservation. I always tell folks that one of the ways to be a conservation activist is to buy a duck stamp.”

But conservation funding falls short if there is no personal motivation for people, Lanham said, who was recently awarded a 2022 MacArthur fellowship for his new model of conservation.

“I’m often disturbed by how often we talk about conservation, but we really don’t move beyond the conversation to do the conservation,” he said. 

To Lanham, conservation starts with realizing birds and humans are intricately connected. 

“A mantra that I frequently cite is: ‘Same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same fate,’ ” he said. “Birds and human beings will share the same fate — we are all canaries in the coal mine and it’s up to us to be motivated. We need to be inspired to do what’s right and to think broadly and not just the same way that we’ve always thought.”


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