Two weeks ago news broke that the U.S. and Canada have lost 3 billion birds since 1970. The headline alone was enough to send me into a dark mood. If you are reading this blog than I believe that you too love birds and all they bring to the world. Over the years we have heard warnings that certain species of birds were facing serious habitat loss and other threats to their existence, but the sheer number from this most recent report was shocking.
The report was issued by the world’s leading scientific journal, Science. The authors were researchers from seven institutions. The information is based on 48 years of data collection from a wide variety of organizations and Agencies – such as the Christmas Bird Count, the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the International Shorebird Survey, and 11 years of data from 143 NEXRAD radar stations which track migration.
What does such a huge number mean in the real world? Here are some of the facts: Dark-eyed Juncos have lost 175
million individuals from their population; White-throated Sparrows are down 93 million. In total we’ve lost more than a quarter of our birdlife since 1970! While all bird families are represented in these losses, the majority came from 12 families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows.
There are too many people who don’t understand the importance and consequences of these kinds of losses. Birds are not just sky decorations. Most, if not all of these bird species play influential roles in the ecosystems of North and South America. Ultimately, this becomes a serious problem for us humans.
Forest and grassland birds have been especially hard hit, which is directly tied to habitat loss. There is a long list of reasons for this avian catastrophe, but habitat loss is the biggest. As the world population grows, more land is needed to grow food and so agriculture expands into areas that were previously covered by trees, wetlands or grass. In the case of wetlands, developers are generally expected to mitigate the loss by ‘creating’ a substitute wet area for the wildlife, but there is no way to accurately replace all the components of the previously healthy, intact system. Some species of birds, mammals and reptiles/amphibians will adapt, but the majority will have lost out. We are
seeing fires burning around the world, as forests are cleared to make room for cattle grazing or the establishment of palm oil plantations. When we add the dramatic shifts that climate change will bring, it is hard to find hope.
Hope is worthless without action. If we bird watchers are as committed to our subjects as we believe we are, we must speak loud and clearly to those who are making the decisions about land usage practices. We can push for legislation that protects Public Lands, rather than make them another degraded landscape of clear cuts or oil drilling platforms.
Pesticides are a known factor in bird deaths; if not direct exposure, than through the loss of prey species of insects. Think about the Tree Swallows, the Eastern Bluebird, and the Common Nighthawks, just to name a few that absolutely depend on insects for their survival. It’s estimated that birds in this category have declined by 160 million. Neonictinoids are the world’s most commonly used pesticides and are known to be toxic to birds, as well as the pollinators we depend upon for food.
In a very immediate and personal way we can reduce bird deaths by keeping our cats indoors and supporting programs that sterilize feral cats. The number of birds killed by cats each year is in the millions and though we will never completely stop this behavior we can reduce it. There are more threats that I haven’t mentioned, and there are more actions we can all take to help. The American Bird Conservancy has a very good list of things we can do as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
So as not to end with an overwhelming sense of gloom, let us remember that as a country we have successfully brought several species of birds back from the brink of extinction – the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon and the
Whooping Crane. It took commitment by citizens and legislation by our government (the Endangered Species Act and banning DDT), but it worked. Another bright spot is the fact that the number of waterfowl has grown greatly since the 1960s and 70s, thanks to the Clean Water Act which helped preserve critical wetlands. We can and should continue to provide birdseed of all kinds for the birds that come to our yards. It is a proven way to help some species in their daily challenges for survival.
The responsibility for the future of our feathered friends rests on our shoulders. Let us not sag under the weight.
By Kate Crowley