David Phillips: Disappearing birds cause for concern

By : 
David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

A new study published in the journal Science by researchers estimates that North America has lost about 29 percent of its entire bird population, or around 3 billion birds, since 1970. The news was shocking, even to people familiar with the ongoing problems in bird populations.

Although science is under attack today, the study shows the importance of the discipline in helping us understand our world. Individually, few of us were aware that bird numbers have been declining and even fewer were aware of the extent.

The study’s authors collected data from long-running surveys conducted with the help of volunteer bird spotters, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count along with nonhuman data, such as a decade’s worth of reports on migrating flocks detected by 143 weather radar installations.

The various independent data sets used in the study should assure skeptics that this is a real phenomenon. The numbers also show that our own eyes aren’t always a reliable source in determining reality even if some politicians want us to ignore inconvenient facts and impartial science that doesn’t align with their worldview.

"People need to pay attention to the birds around them because they are slowly disappearing," study lead author Kenneth Rosenberg, a Cornell University conservation scientist, told the Associated Press. "One of the scary things about the results is that it is happening right under our eyes. We might not even notice it until it's too late."

Most of the loss was in just 12 bird families, which include sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches. Grassland birds had the steepest decline at 53 percent because they had the greatest loss of habitat. One of the co-authors noted that grasslands are the most threatened terrestrial ecosystem in North America as the continent has lost more acres of grassland in the last few years than the Amazon lost acres of rainforest.

The shocking 3 billion figure shows this is a real threat. If we got a report that 29 percent of the human residents in our community had disappeared for various reasons over the past few decades, we would be demanding action.

In today’s world, the birds may not get the same response, even though they are good indicators about the health of our ecosystem, acting as true canaries in the coalmine. The loss of these birds indicate problems for other wildlife and, perhaps, even humans.

We’ve faced crises before and countered with successful responses. When Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” the book helped launch an environmental movement to stop the use of DDT, which had nearly decimated raptors such as the peregrine falcon and bald eagle. Bipartisan efforts created the conditions needed for a remarkable recovery of these species, which continue to flourish today.

In today’s world where science has become politicized and environmental efforts are seen as partisan, it is difficult to expect people will universally rally to the defense of our feathered friends.

However, the study shows they could use a little help. More recent efforts show that what we do really does make a difference.

For example, the study showed wetland birds are recovering as their numbers are up 13 percent. The primary reason is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which provided nearly $2 billion in funding toward wetlands conservation projects.

Although we can help birds on an individual level by keeping cats indoors, adding bird deterrents to glass and eliminating harmful pesticides from our yards, it will take collective actions, such as the Wetlands Conservation Act, to make a real difference.

Managing public lands better, providing incentives to improve habitat on private land and instituting policies to better protect birds can all help bring more balance to our ecosystem.

Nicole Michel, senior quantitative ecologist at the National Audubon Society, told the magazine Popular Science that past efforts show species can make a comeback if they are given a little help.

“When you give birds half a chance, they can recover,” she said. “And this is important because birds and humans share the same fate. By protecting birds and their habitat, you also protect people and other wildlife that depend on the same places. What’s good for birds is good for people.”