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  • Writer's pictureBrice Claypoole

Will we still have a “Silent Spring”?

Updated: Nov 27, 2021

One of the last photos ever taken of the Bachman’s warbler (1958)

Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service:

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared both the famous ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) and the lesser known, but equally magnificent Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) extinct. We have now lost the largest woodpecker in North America, the ivory-billed; the rarest songbird in North America, the Bachman’s warbler; the only parakeet in the US, the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis); and the bird that may have “once constituted 25 to 40 per cent of the total bird population of the United States,” according to the Smithsonian Institution. This last was the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), a bird once so plentiful that it is said flocks took hours to fly overhead.

A specimen of the great ivory-billed woodpecker.

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John James Audubon’s famous painting of seven Carolina parakeets squabbling on a branch.

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One of the last passenger pigeons, original image from 1898.

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Many of our remaining avians are in decline as well. If we continue our current path, we may soon have what the famous conservationist, Rachel Carson, called a “Silent Spring,” a spring in which no birds sing. Imagine, a spring without the chick-a-dee-dee-dee of the chickadee or the twee-twee-twee of the cardinal. A spring unwelcomed by the return of robins. And yet, almost unnoticed, spring is becoming more and more silent. As Carson wrote, “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

It is not just the birds, pollinators are declining, too. Though the media generally fixates on the non-native honey bee, native bees such as bumble bees are also declining. After a 90% decline and its disappearance from many US states*, the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) may soon be added to the endangered species list. The rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) is already endangered. The beloved monarch butterflies are also headed toward extinction if nothing is done for them. Though they were recently denied a place on the endangered species list, the USFWS says listing them is warranted.

Plants are also in trouble. Though easily overlooked, many species are becoming increasingly rare. One such plant is the Florida loosestrife (Lythrum flagellare). Florida loosestrife is a rare groundcover that only grows in Central and Southern Florida, where it is State listed as endangered. Its minuscule flowers are lovely pink or lavender in color. It once grew on the edges of wet-prairie habitats according to the Florida Wildflower Foundation, but I have only seen it in wet ditches and fields. These habitats, too, are becoming increasingly rare as overdevelopment ravages the state of Florida.

A wild Florida loosestrife in bloom.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Still, there is hope! One of the main reasons for the extinction of the avians listed above was habitat loss. Most people can’t grow an old-growth cypress swamp in their front yard for ivory-billed woodpeckers, but you can grow many of the native plants that wildlife depends on. You can plant native milkweeds for monarchs (make sure that you get it from a native plant nursery, as many other nurseries sell a non-native milkweed that carries a monarch parasite). Grow fruiting native shrubs and trees, like pokeweed and elderberry for birds, and native wildflowers for pollinators like monarchs and native bees.

One great native plant nursery in Florida (which has recently started cultivating the rare Florida loosestrife) is Sweet Bay Nursery. To find nurseries elsewhere in Florida, you can go to the Plant Real Florida website.

Another factor in insect declines is pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids penetrate every tissue of the plant they are sprayed on, or plants whose roots come in contact with them when they run off into the soil, turning the plant toxic. According to Cornell University, studies have found that neonicotinoids can cause increased mortality, reduced colony growth, reduced brood production, reduced nest construction, and impaired feeding in bumble bees.

Pesticides also harm birds by eliminating their food source. Many baby birds feed almost exclusively on caterpillars of moths and butterflies. Without moths, butterflies, and other arthropods, we would lose 96% of terrestrial bird species in North America, writes renowned entomologist Doug Tallamy. So, the ability of pesticides to indiscriminately kill insects is highly problematic to birds, and many scientists think pesticides are partly responsible for the recent declines in bird populations.

Planting native habitats in your yard and halting pesticide use work! After planting our yard with native plants, I saw American bumble bees for the first time! As I added more and more natives, more and more American bumble bees came, until this summer we always had a few visiting our flowers!

An American bumble bee visits a blazingstar (Liatris) flower in our yard.

Photo by Brice Claypoole

Another very important step to ensure a future for vulnerable species is to vote for politicians who will protect the wild places they live. You can also write letters to your local lawmakers, in support of conserving the wild areas that many threatened species need.

Spread the word that animals and plants need our help if they are to continue to thrive. Share your native plants with neighbors or post something about pesticide reduction on social media. Simply by sharing your experience with natives or the letters you’ve written to lawmakers can inspire others to help save species, too!

Rachel Carson wrote that, “We stand now where two roads diverge.” She warned that, “unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.” Carson brought to light the fact that, if we continue on our current road, we may soon have a Spring without birdsong and the buzzing of bees. But, if we take the other road, “the road not taken,” there will still be hope for the bees, the butterflies, and the birds. In the decades since Carson’s warnings, we have continued on the well-traveled and easy road, losing the Bachman’s warbler and the ivory-billed woodpecker along the way, but we can still change course. It is not too late for the American bumble bee and the monarch butterfly. The Florida loosestrife still blooms throughout its shrinking range. And if we take the other road, we can still save them. If we take the other road, we can ensure a bright future for the multitudes of other species we love and who share with us this wondrous planet.

*Cameron, S.A., Lozier, J.D., Strange, J.P, Koch, J.B., Cordes, N., Solter, L.F. and Griswold, T.L. 2011. Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 108(2): 662-667.

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Brice Claypoole
Brice Claypoole
Jun 09, 2022
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