Merriott column: Our canary in the coal mine |

Merriott column: Our canary in the coal mine

On Sept. 9 the freak cold snap invaded our valley. We made the decision to cover our backyard garden in freeze cloth. No small feat considering our garden is about 250 square feet and included 8-foot-high sunflowers, 6-foot-high tomatoes, and multiple morning glory vines.

We obtained 6-foot poles and clothes pins to anchor the cloth both to the poles and the small fence around the garden. I was under the “tent” trying to get the sunflowers bent over, and thank goodness looked down.

There was a female yellow Wilson’s warbler right by my foot. Luckily for me and for her she had not been smushed! I don’t know if birds shiver, but this one appeared to be doing so, just like I was.

For sure, this premature cold snap had taken her totally by surprise just like us, but she was near death. Gently, I picked her up and put her in a shoe box and moved her inside. Then, before we could finish our “greenhouse” a male bird appeared just as cold and weak.

Obviously, they were a couple. We would just let them recover inside our house while we finished our engineering endeavor. Unfortunately, the male escaped out of the shoebox when Carly peeked in to check on them. We just could not separate the couple, so the shoe box went outside, and the female flew off a short time later. I saw the female the next day trying to scare bugs up out of the yard and I thought, wow she made it.

Unfortunately, over the next couple days I found two warbler carcasses in my backyard. My deduction would be they could not find enough to eat. I buried them both in the garden where we first met.

Turns out these warblers were not alone in their misery, and that birds were literally falling out of the sky in New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds have been found dead over the past several months. Biologists at New Mexico State University say we could be looking at millions of bird deaths.

Several writers have already covered this issue, but I feel it is so important especially when you consider the old “canary in the coal mine” saying and my love for wildlife of all kinds; not mention this massive bird die off.

For those of you who don’t know, in the early 1900s and for decades coal miners would literally take canaries down into coal mines to warn them of carbon monoxide gas. If the bird died, the miners knew to exit the tunnels immediately or die themselves.

David Gessner, a respected nature writer, has mourned our disappearing bird population. Gessner writes that we have almost a third fewer birds in the world than we did in 1970. A third! Heck, I remember growing up in Louisiana, before the interstate came through, there would be literally flocks of blue birds. When we first moved to River Valley Ranch in Carbondale in 1998, the gorgeous mountain blue birds were commonplace to see. I have not seen one now in probably eight or nine years due to their loss of habitat, and of course free-roaming cats. (Incidentally, Carbondale has an ordinance that prohibits your cats from being in other people’s yards)

These bird losses are a strong warning that the alterations we humans are making to their habitat are compromising their ability to nest and raise their young. At our yard this year we had three bird families. Scrub jays, robins and barn swallows. Behind our house in the cattails we had multiple red-winged blackbirds build their nests. Last week, I counted 18 still hanging around singing and enjoying their cattail home.

Some of my neighbors want to poison the cattails, destroying more habitat so they can see the ponds better. So, yes, changes like this will get rid of the red-winged blackbirds, as well.

Today, there are 170 million red wings. Sounds like a lot until you realize that just 50 years ago there were more than 260 million, so we lost a third of their population in half a century.

Unfortunately, it’s not just birds, though, as the Living Planet Report 2020 provided by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London reports that worldwide animal populations have plummeted 68%, on average, since 1970.

Climate change and COVID-19 are making it worse.

We must do better, lest we become the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Frosty Merriott served 10 years on Carbondale Town Council and is a tree hugger from Louisiana. He can be reached at

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