Creature Thoughts Oct. 2019: Our Birds are in Trouble

Our Birds Are In Trouble

Everyone knows I love birds. I’ve been a bird-watcher since early childhood. Some of my favorite early memories involve lying in my Aunt Sis’s hammock as she taught me all about the birds that visited her feeders. I am now so fortunate to live in a place where I am surrounded by miles of natural habitat. From my vantage point, with all of the wonderful species I see every day, I would never have guessed that nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America since the 1970s.

The Journal of Science issue of September 2019 published a study by conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, The study analyzed 529 species, including many of our most common birds, in the United States and Canada. The results were devastating. 2.9 billion birds, over a quarter of our total breeding population, are gone.

The extent of this loss indicates strongly that our overall environment is collapsing. Rosenberg said, “Our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.” The loss is unlike anything previously recorded and it spans hundreds of species. Population models were based on long-term monitoring of bird counts across the continent and augmented by radar data provided by over 140 NEXRAD weather stations.

The radar data revealed that migrating flocks have declined significantly. Imagery reported a 14% decline in size and mass of these night-traveling migratory flocks since 2007, most notably in the eastern half of the country.

Losses are reported in every biome, such as forest, tundra, shorelines, and grasslands. Grassland species have been the hardest hit, with over 50% decline.

Habitat loss is one of the most significant factors. The intensification of agriculture, along with development of land for human use, has destroyed many bird breeding grounds. In order to stop this mass-extinction of all of our bird species, it will be necessary to take long-held efforts that have been used to bring endangered species back from the brink and expand them to include all birds.

The situation also spans all bird families. More than 90% of the reported losses were from common birds such as sparrows, blackbirds, and warblers. My favorite spring-time harbinger, the Red-winged Blackbird, for instance, declined from 260 million in 1970 to only 170 million today. That is a loss of nearly 35%.

Due to intense conservation efforts for birds in the waterfowl and raptor families, and game birds like wild turkeys, these groups are doing somewhat better. We need to examine what’s been done to help those bird families and expand these methods to encompass all birds.

What can you do to help? Although each of us can only make a small dent in the problem, together we can make a difference.

  • Join eBird and start bird-watching. Report your sightings. This will help the scientists, through groups like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, track bird species. It’s free and there’s an app you can install on your Android or iOS phone so you can record species wherever you go.
  • Donate to groups such as Cornell, above, and other environmental protection organizations that are trying to protect bird breeding habitat.
  • Encourage your political representatives to educate themselves on the issue and fight for better conservation efforts.
  • Plan your landscaping in a way that will support birds and their breeding patterns. Here are some ideas:
    • Leave natural growth. Don’t mow everything, but let some of your land return to natural high-growth areas. Leave undergrowth in wooded areas; many smaller woodland birds nest in the brush and bushes. Encourage weeds that produce seeds and berries, such as thistle and dandelion (the little finches love them).
    • Don’t take down all your dead trees. Remove trees and branches that might be a safety hazard, but wherever you can, leave a good tall section of the trunk. Woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds rely on dead trees for nest sites.
    • Grow plants that are native to your area. You can talk to your local cooperative extension office to find out what plants would be best for your particular location. Be sure to include fruit-bearing plants and those which produce edible seeds.
    • Create brush piles for shelter and nesting areas.
    • Don’t use chemicals on your lawn and gardens. Pesticides and weed killers don’t just kill bugs and weeds.
    • Provide feeding and watering stations for the birds, especially if you can set them up near the edge of wooded areas or brush, so there is shelter as well as food.
  • Keep your cats inside. While cat predation is only a small factor in songbird decline, it does contribute to the problem. It is something you can do for your own backyard birds, to help keep them safe. (Indoor cats are proven to be healthier and live longer, as well.)

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