Bird Nesting Season - Do Not Disturb!

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`Did you know that in countries like The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Russia, to name a few,  it is illegal to harm a bird’s nest, even in your own backyard? In South Africa there are laws protecting many of our endangered birds, but not all our birds. In order to protect birds and all the other wildlife living in our suburbs, I appeal to all gardeners to prune responsibly, even if it is a bit inconvenient. Read more about pruning responsibly below.

In the countries mentioned above, and many more, it is against the law to deliberately kill, injure, or remove any bird from the wild, or to take or destroy their eggs or nest.  While that nest is in use or being built, it is illegal to damage it in any way. This law includes birds and their nests in gardens, as well as any birds that are nesting precisely where developers want to build new houses.

Although not all our birds are protected by law, in certain constituencies, it may be law. For example, in Johannesburg a Protection of Wild Animals and Birds By-law was published in April of 2006 in the Gauteng Provincial Gazette no. 135. Unfortunately, because the original publication document is not available, this content could not be verified!

Cape White-eye Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayCape White-eye Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayThese By-laws made it illegal to hunt for, shoot at, kill, snare, capture, pursue, search for, or lie in wait with intent to kill, shoot, capture, disturb, destroy, or wound or maim any wild animal or bird. It also stated that no person may, without lawful cause or without the permission in writing of the Council, hunt any wild animal or bird by any means whatsoever; remove, disturb or destroy any nests of birds, their eggs or their young. Also, no person may, without lawful cause, fire or discharge a firearm, air-gun or air-pistol. Any person failing to comply is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or in default of payment to imprisonment.

Who knows when South Africa will join the rest of the world on this issue and make it illegal to endanger any bird, and do we even need to wait for such laws to be enforced? Let’s stand together in the name of common sense and start to make a difference, one garden at a time. Simply communicating with our family and friends may change the way they think about pruning and birds, and this alone will make a huge impact.

Birds worldwide have suffered terribly at the hands of humans, and even though we have come a long way since the Lacey Act of 1900, we still have a long way to go. The Lacey Act was introduced into the Congress of the USA by Representative John F. Lacey, an Iowa Republican. The act would protect both plants and wildlife by creating civil and criminal penalties for those who violated the rules and regulations of the act. Thankfully the act was signed into law by President William McKinley on May 25, 1900.

In the late 1800s, in the US, birds were hunted and shipped off to restaurants to augment their menus, and feathers were extensively used in the millinery trade to adorn fashionable ladies’ hats. These practices took a tremendous toll on the populations of many bird species, resulting in the decimation of the numbers of Passenger Pigeons, Eskimo Curlews, shorebirds, egrets, and many other colonially nesting birds across the country.

The original Act was directed at the preservation of game and wild birds, making it a federal crime to poach game in one state with the purpose of selling the bounty in another. The law also prohibited the transportation of animals across state lines, and addressed potential problems caused by the introduction of non-native species of birds and animals into native ecosystems. Today, the Lacey Act is used primarily to prevent the importation or spread of potentially dangerous non-native species.

Southern Double-collard Sunbird Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabaySouthern Double-collard Sunbird Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayThe Lacey Act was replaced by the Weeks-McClean Law of 1913, which was intended to stop commercial hunting of game (including birds) and the illegal shipment of migratory birds from one state to another.  The Act states that birds “…shall hereafter be deemed to be within the custody and protection of the Government of the United States, and shall not be destroyed or taken contrary to regulations hereinafter provided therefore”. 

The Weeks-McClean Law was replaced by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), which decrees that all migratory birds and their parts (including eggs, nests, and feathers) are fully protected by law. The Act is the domestic law that implements the four conventions (or treaties) between the United States and Canada, Japan, Mexico and Russia for the protection of migratory bird resources. The four conventions protect the birds that occur in both countries at some time during their annual cycle.

More than a century after its adoption the world’s first migratory bird treaty remains in force. Its stringent environmental laws are very effective because it holds companies accountable for all activities that may incidentally kill or harm birds, such as the misapplication of pesticides, the release of highly toxic chemicals into a pond, the erection of power lines in areas with high bird density, and the operation of oil pits without taking precautions to protect birds. The MBTA has been used in lawsuits against companies responsible for avoidable environmental disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

In South Africa the number of critically endangered birds has increased significantly over the past two decades. One group of birds, in particular, scavenging raptors, are under increasing risk. Most of South Africa’s vulture species, as well as the Tawny Eagle and the Bateleur, are listed as endangered.

Cape Robin Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayCape Robin Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayThe South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCOB) was founded in 1968 with the objective to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill, injured, abandoned, and oiled seabirds – especially endangered species like the African penguin.

The Sea Birds and Seals Protection Act 46 of 1973 was introduced for the protection, and the control of the capture and killing of sea birds and seals. It protects and has control over certain islands and even rocks.

Although many of our endangered bird species are protected by law, many wildlife advocates are in favour of extending protection under the national biodiversity legislation to include far more species than the small number currently enjoying such protection.

South Africa has a long way to go in implementing laws which will protect all birds, but doing so without first educating people on the value of preserving our birds, right down to the tiniest little garden bird, it would probably fail. Essentially, we cannot wait for someone to do it for us, so let’s all do our part.  A quick online search can put you in touch with many great organisations and clubs which promote wildlife conservation, and if birds are what you are really interested in, there are many clubs and organisations you could join or support financially. Getting involved with conservation projects or birding clubs can also be a lot of fun for the whole family, and a great way to educate our children about birds. Most importantly we need to start in our own backyard, where together we can make a huge difference - one garden at a time.

One way we can all make a difference is simply to adjust our pruning times in order to accommodate nesting birds. Our birds need you, so if you love them, leave them alone.

Bronze Mannikin Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayBronze Mannikin Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayIn South Africa the pruning of deciduous trees, roses, etc. is traditionally done in winter, and spring is traditionally the time when all the evergreens are pruned. Sadly, spring is also the happiest time for all our garden birds which do not migrate - they have survived the harsh winter, often with a little help from humans who provide them with scraps of food and water, and now that spring is in the air, it’s nesting time.

Gardeners inspired by ‘spring fever’ sometimes go a bit crazy, pruning everything in sight. Townhouse complexes simply instruct the garden service to prune everything, and so they do, without a thought for the birds nesting there, and sometimes even ripping through everything with a chain-saw!  Simply the loud noise these machines make is sufficient to terrify the parents into abandoning their nest.

I like to believe that many people just aren’t aware of the carnage their gardeners or garden services may be wreaking on our wildlife, simply because they are not doing their own gardening and pruning, so they don’t see it. Not everyone loves to garden, and that’s fine, but I appeal to everyone, and especially the trustees of complexes and estates to bear this in mind. Discuss your concerns with your garden service and make it clear to them that they have to become more conscious and professional about their services.

Perhaps together we can start a new gardening trend, and thereby a whole new gardening niche for young entrepreneurs who offer conscious gardening and pruning solutions for those of us who don’t have the time to do our own gardening, and we certainly don’t have to wait for our Government to make it into law to achieve this goal. What I have termed “conscious pruning” is a concept which most people will love, and for young entrepreneurs who can imagine a better future, it could provide a very lucrative and exciting niche for a whole string of new businesses, including fully accredited, insured and responsible tree and hedge contractors.

Gardeners who love to do their own work, or spend as much time in their gardens as possible quickly make connections with the various birds which inhabit their garden, and soon they become like family. We watch them build their nests, lay their eggs and raise their young, and we even feed them occasionally during the winter months when food is scarce. Birds make our hearts sing, and we smile as we wonder how many generations of that original little Cape sparrow family have been raised in that very same tree in the garden.

Blacksmith Plover Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayBlacksmith Plover Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayBecause we share our urban landscape with birds that live here year-round, or migrate here in spring and summer, it is difficult to pin down a perfect time to prune etc.  In countries of the Northern Hemisphere, where bird protection laws are in place, gardeners are advised that it’s best to trim trees and shrubs in fall and winter to avoid harming nesting birds.

In South Africa, with its 9 very diverse climatic zones, it would be necessary to adjust pruning times according to regions, but one rule should always be kept – never ever  prune in spring and early summer.

I encourage you to start thinking along these lines, and to become more flexible in your gardening methods.  In cold and frosty regions, springtime pruning could be delayed and carried out throughout summer to mid-summer. In milder winter regions it could be done in late summer or even in autumn. In subtropical regions pruning could be staggered throughout the year.

The guidelines given in countries with bird protection by-laws in place can easily be implemented in our own gardens, and they include:|

Avoid pruning during the main breeding season for nesting birds, and when pruning is undertaken, inspect the tree , shrub or hedge, and if there are still birds nesting there, do not prune. Even pruning around the nest can expose it to the elements and to predators, and the birds will abandon the nest.

If you have the space, consider letting both living and dead trees on your property remain standing. If a dead tree does not present a safety hazard, please consider leaving it alone, as standing dead trees (snags) provide an excellent habitat for cavity nesting birds and other animals.

Many bird species will nest in brush piles or even in tall grass, so always perform a thorough inspection for nests before removing brush or mowing lawn which has been allowed to grow long. 

Cape Bulbul Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayCape Bulbul Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayIn countries where these laws are enforced, if you disturb or destroy an active bird nest, you may risk hefty fines, and people are encouraged to inform their neighbours of the laws. For example, if they see a neighbour pruning a hedge and they know there are birds nesting there, they are encouraged to politely mention the risk to birds’ nests, and the laws protecting them. If they still proceed, people are encouraged to report it. In South Africa, I encourage you to ‘very politely’ try to educate people about birds, but please – be nice!

In these countries the law is very strictly enforced for developers, and when tree or vegetation clearance work has to be undertaken during the nesting season, a pre-works survey needs to be carried out by a suitably competent person. As a general rule, it should be assumed that birds will be nesting in trees, and contractors are required to assess, record and confirm that any works carried out in the management of trees and other vegetation, has not disturbed actively nesting birds.

Ground vegetation, and therefore ground nesting birds, can often be overlooked by tree workers so additional care and controls should be taken when access to the work site may also cause disturbance or damage to a nesting site. This is also true for retained trees on site as the removal of adjacent trees or remedial works on a tree may lead to the established nest being abandoned, or exposed to the elements or predation.

While researching this article online I found many developers who stated that, in their experience most clients are sympathetic, and if works need to be put on hold until nesting is over, then this is usually accepted. I do believe that even without legislation, there is a market for eco-conscious developers in South Africa who market their services as such.

We need birds far more than they need us, and the benefits birds bring us aren't just cultural.

Swee Waxbill Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabaySwee Waxbill Picture by Jean van der Meulen from PixabayCan you imagine a world without birds? Ecosystems such as forests and the marine environment provide us with food, medicines and important raw materials. They keep the climate stable, oxygenate air and transform pollutants into nutrients. Birds play an important role in the effective functioning of these systems. 

As birds are high up in the food chain, they are also good indicators of the general state of our biodiversity. When they start disappearing, it means that something is wrong with our environment and we need to take action.

One vital role they play is keeping insect populations under control, and a recent study has shown that birds eat 400 to 500 million tons of insects a year. Frankly, without birds we would be wading knee-deep in invertebrates! Birds are so effective at insect control that installing nest boxes has become a common pest control practice throughout Europe.

About 5% of the plants humans use for food and medicine are pollinated by birds, and interestingly, in South Africa nearly a quarter of Salvia species are bird-pollinated.

Birds disperse plant seeds through their droppings, helping to bring plants back to ecosystems that have been destroyed, and they even carry plants across the sea to new land masses. Habitats like forests, marshes and grasslands affect people across the world because they store carbon, keep the climate stable, oxygenate the air and transform pollutants into nutrients. Because birds maintain the delicate balance between plant and herbivore, predator and prey, without birds many of these ecosystems may not even exist.

Seabirds play a key role in cycling nutrients and help to fertilise marine ecosystems such as coral reefs. The layers of guano (seabird droppings) they deposit at their colonies leach into the ocean and fertilises nearby communities such as coral reefs.

Birds are the messengers that tell us about the health of our planet, and if they disappear, the results can be catastrophic. Let’s change the way we garden to accommodate our beautiful feathered friends, they are worth it.