Guest article by Theresa Hartz, Atlanta Audubon Volunteer and Master Birder Instructor
The number is staggering. In less than one human lifetime, 2.9 billion breeding birds have been lost from the continental United States and Canada. That is more than one in four birds that have disappeared from our shores, forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts and neighborhoods. This can be thought of as a balance sheet. Each year birds produce their young while other birds die (naturally and caused by humans). Between 1970 and 2017, many more birds have died than have been hatched and survived.
This astounding and disturbing conclusion is the result of a collaborative study recently published in the journal Science. The research team, which included scientists from the American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian Wildlife Services, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studied data collected from 1970 through 2017. The data of the breeding population of 529 species were analyzed using North American Breeding Bird Surveys and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts, as well as ten other data sets. The team also analyzed more recent data collected by radar technology that tracks large groups of birds as they migrate in spring and fall.
These are not our "exotic and unusual" birds that have declined so dramatically. More than 90 percent of the total loss of birdlife comes from 12 avian families. We are talking about our backyard and neighborhood birds!
Red-winged Blackbirds are well known, common birds that utilize several habitats. Yet they have declined by one-third. For those of you who grew up in the Midwest, you might recall flocks of colorful Bobolinks flying in the fields. As with several other grassland birds, we have lost an astounding 60 percent of these beautiful birds. The Eastern Towhee is a common backyard bird however we have lost 40 percent of them. Even harder to fathom is the loss of one in four Blue Jays (Blue Jays!!) Common winter feeder birds, such as Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows, are both down by more than 30 percent. One in three Baltimore Orioles are gone. Perhaps you are beginning to grasp the incredible scope of this problem. To paraphrase the American Bird Conservancy, if these birds are in trouble, the wider web of life (including us) is in trouble too. It is not a case of just one canary dying in the mine, it’s almost three billion of them.
Major drivers of dramatic bird declines
Habitat loss through development, agriculture, and resource extraction head the list. When we develop a patch of land that was previously good, messy habitat, the birds have to go elsewhere. The problem now is, "elsewhere" has become scarce. In this same vein is habitat degradation, which occurs when the habitat is changed (often "improved") and becomes less able to support birds. Examples are when a woodland is fragmented or altered by invasive plants, or when water quality is compromised. To keep them green, people use pesticides containing neonicotinoids, which kill birds when they feed on poisoned insects or pesticide-laced seeds, for example. Herbicides kill host plants for insects that birds feed on, and birds die if their prey disappears.
Other major human caused threats to birds are feral or free-roaming cats (a major killer of birds) and collisions with infrastructure (glass buildings, communication towers, wind turbines). The major decline (more than 30 percent) in our native insects mirrors closely the decline in birds. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these threats as well as create new challenges.
The scientists who produced this report believe it is still possible to reverse course and stop this decline. Action at the national scale is needed, and, given the migratory nature of many birds, is indeed also needed at the international level. We need governmental and political leadership to strengthen, not weaken, our environmental laws that have been so successful in the past. Banning DDT and other pesticides brought the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon back from near extinction. Wetland conservation in the Clean Water Act has increased our waterfowl by 50 percent, to the delight of both hunters and birders.
There are three important bills currently in Congress that would help protect birds. The Recover America’s Wildlife Act would increase federal funding for state conservation programs, thus giving the states the ability to decide their unique priorities. These funds would be redirected funds, not new federal dollars. The Bird Safe Building Act would require new and renovating federal government buildings be renovated to include bird-safe materials and design. The Migratory Bird Protection Act would restore provisions in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (which has been in effect for 100 years) that have been weakened over the last few years.
There are also key actions that we all can take to make our homes, neighborhoods and region a safer and more bird-friendly environment.
People often ask me if I have noticed reduced birdlife since I started birding. I answer, yes, most definitely! Sadly, there is now the data to back up this claim. If we continue down this road of losing 30 percent of birdlife every 48 years, many of our favorite backyard birds won’t be around for anyone to enjoy. Is this really the legacy we wish to leave to our grandchildren?