3 billion birds missing

Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks show declines.

We know how 3 billion breeding birds disappeared in last 48 years

By Barb Gorges

            “Decline of the North American avifauna” is the title of the report published online by the journal Science on Sept. 19, 2019.

            The bird conservation groups I belong to summed it up as “3 billion birds lost.”

            In a nutshell (eggshell?), there are three billion fewer, 29 percent fewer, breeding birds of 529 species in North America then in 1970.

            The losses are spread across common birds, like western meadowlark, as well as less common birds, in all biomes. While the grasslands, where we live, lost only 720 million breeding birds, that’s 53 percent—the highest percentage of the biomes. And 74 percent of grassland species are declining. Easy-to-understand infographics are available at https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

            Two categories of birds have increased in numbers: raptors and waterfowl. Their numbers were very low in 1970 due to pesticides and wetland degradation, respectively. Eliminating DDT and restoring wetlands, among other actions, allowed them to prosper.

                The 11 U.S. and Canadian scientists crunched data from ongoing bird surveys including the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, the International Shorebird Survey, and the Partners in Flight Avian Conservation Database.

Weather radar, which shows migrating birds simply as biomass, shows a 14 percent decrease from 2007 to 2017.

            Two of the contributors to the study are scientists I’ve talked to and whose work I respect. Adriaan Dokter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is working with me, Audubon Rockies and the Roundhouse developers. We want to see if weather radar can predict the best nights to shut down wind turbines for the safety of migratory birds passing through the wind farm they are buiding at the southwest corner of I80 and I25.

            I’ve met Arvind Panjabi, with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on several occasions. BCR does bird studies primarily in the west as well as educational programs. 

            How does the number of birds make a difference to you and me? Birds are the easiest animals to count and serve as indicators of ecological health. If bird numbers are down, we can presume other fauna numbers are out of whack too—either, for instance, too many insects devouring crops or too few predators keeping pest numbers down. Ecological changes affect our food, water and health.

            The decline of common bird species is troubling because you would think they would be taking advantage of the decline of species less resilient to change. But even invasive species like European starling and house sparrow are declining.

The biggest reasons for avian population loss are habitat loss, agricultural intensification (no “weedy” areas left), coastal disturbance and human activities. Climate change amplifies all the problems.

A coalition including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Georgetown University have an action plan.

7 steps we can all take to help birds

            There are seven steps we can all take. The steps, with details, are at https://www.3billionbirds.org/. Most of them I’ve written about over the last 20 years so you can also search my archives, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/.    

1. Make windows safer. Turn off lights at night inside and outside large buildings like the Herschler Building and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens during migration. Break up the reflections of vegetation birds see in our home windows during the day.

2. Keep cats indoors. Work on the problem of feral cats. They are responsible for more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion birds per year cats kill.

3. Use native plants. There are 63,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. currently only attractive to birds if they have pests or weeds.

4. Avoid pesticides. They are toxic to birds and the insects they eat. Go organic. Support U.S. bill H.R. 1337, Saving America’s Pollinators Act. Contact Wyoming’s Representative Liz Cheney and ask that registration of neonicotinoids be suspended. Birds eating seeds with traces of neonics are not as successful surviving and breeding.

5. Drink shade-grown coffee. It helps 42 species of migratory North American birds and is economically beneficial to farmers.

6. Reduce plastic use. Even here, mid-continent rather than the ocean, plastic can be a problem for birds. Few companies are interested in recycling plastic anymore.

7. Do citizen science. Help count birds through volunteer surveys like eBird, Project FeederWatch (new count season begins Nov. 9), the Christmas Bird Count (Cheyenne’s is Dec. 28), and if you are a good birder, take on a Breeding Bird Survey route next spring.

To aid grasslands in particular, support Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative, https://www.audubon.org/conservation/ranching.

In a related Science article, Ken Rosenberg, the report’s lead author, says, “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

Western Meadowlarks are also in severe decline. Audubon Photography Awards 2012, photographer’s name not available.