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.
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Year of the Bird celebrates Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Painted Bunting.

This Painted Bunting was Jack Rogers’ Audubon Photography Awards entry in 2015. Photo courtesy National Audubon Society.

Year of the Bird celebrates 100th anniversary of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Barb Gorges

This is the Year of the Bird. It’s been declared by four august organizations: the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International. A hundred other organizations have joined them.

My husband Mark and I have been members for years of the first three, and I’m on the email list for the fourth so I’ve heard the message four times since the first of the year.

The Year of the Bird celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds. Read the act at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php (remember “take” is a euphemism for “kill”).

The Year of the Bird is also about advocating for birds. Today you can go to the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/, and sign the Year of the Bird pledge. You’ll receive monthly instructions for simple actions you can take on behalf of birds. The official Year of the Bird website, www.birdyourworld.org, will take you to the National Geographic page, and the other sponsors’ websites will get you there as well.

You may not be aware of National Geographic’s bird credentials. When the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America came out in the 1980s, it was a must-have sensation. You can find the latest edition at local bookstores and online.

The National Audubon Society, http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird, is your portal to these articles so far: How Birds Bind Us, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The United States of Birding and Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. My favorite–Why Do Birds Matter? – quotes dozens of well-known authors and ornithologists.

BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/flyway, offers ways to think about birds. When you see your next robin, think about where it’s been, what it’s flown over. Think about the people in other countries who may have seen the bird too. Think about the work being done to protect its migratory flyways.

On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology begins the year addressing bird appreciation. At one of their websites, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/6-resolutions-to-help-you-birdyourworld-in-2018/, Hugh Powell recommends getting a decent pair of affordable binoculars after reading this guide on how to shop for them, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/six-steps-to-choosing-a-pair-of-binoculars-youll-love/.

Powell also recommends CLO’s free Merlin Bird ID app to get to know your local birds better (or see http://www.AllAboutBirds.org). Then you can keep daily bird lists through CLO’s free eBird program, including photos and sound recordings.

While you watch birds from your kitchen window, drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee. There’s an in-depth article at https://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Or play CLO’s new Bird Song Hero game to help you learn how to match what you hear with the visual spectrograph, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org.

Finally, Powell suggests “pay it forward”—take someone birding and join a bird club or Audubon chapter (locally, I’d recommend my chapter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/).

Here in Wyoming our lone U.S. Representative, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has attempted to take the teeth out of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with H.R. 4239. She thinks protecting birds should not come at the expense of business.

Earlier threats to birds caused conservationist Aldo Leopold to write in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanack, “We face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

I would say that people who appreciate birds are not a minority. And many of us agree with biologist and biodiversity definer Thomas Lovejoy, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”

If it is too cold for you to appreciate the birds while outside, check out National Geographic’s January issue with photos by Joel Sartore. More of his bird photos for National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, studio portraits of the world’s animals, will be in a book coming out this spring written by Noah Strycker, “Birds of the Photo Ark.” Strycker will be speaking in Cheyenne May 14.

Now go to www.BirdYourWorld.org and take the pledge and find out each month what simple action you can take on behalf of birds.

Addendum: Because the paragraph about Liz Cheney was omitted from the column when it was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, I submitted a letter to the editor that was published four days later:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack

Dear Editor,

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S., along with co-signers Mexico, Canada, Japan and Russia, agree to protect birds that cross our borders and theirs.

A hundred years ago there was a battle between conservationists and industrialists and the birds won. Industry is now held accountable for “incidental take” – birds killed unintentionally during the course of business. That has included birds hooked by long-line ocean fishing, birds attracted to oily evaporation ponds in oil and gas fields and birds hit by wind turbines.

These kinds of hazards can add up and make a population-threatening dent. Instead, the MBTA has forced industries to pay fines or come up with ingenious solutions that save a lot of birds.

However, Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney is backing U.S. House Resolution 4239 which would remove the requirement to take responsibility for incidental take. Here we are, 100 years later, fighting the battle again.

If you would like to speak up for the birds, please call Cheney’s office, 202-225-2311. The polite person who answers the phone only wants to know your name, address and your opinion, so they know which column to check, anti-bird, or pro-bird and the MBTA.

Barb Gorges

Cheyenne

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear, www.abcbirds.org.

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel www.aba.org.

Birder’s World: magazine, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale, www.BirdWatchersDigest.com.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects, www.birds.cornell.edu.

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store, www.birdday.org.

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters www.audubon.org.

North American Birds Online: Internet data base, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna.

Thayer Birding: software, www.thayerbirding.com.

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear, www.nature.org.

Gifts for birdwatchers and birds

Bird-friendly coffee

Try some bird-friendly coffee from the folks who bring you the International Migratory Bird Day catalog, Environment for the Americas.

Published Dec. 12, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Make this Christmas a holiday for the birds.”

2014 Update: All the phone numbers originally listed in this column have been converted to website addresses for your convenience. The prices, however, have not been updated, and there are many new bird books.

By Barb Gorges

Satisfying the wild bird lover on your Christmas gift list can be as easy as buying a sweatshirt decorated with chickadees, a clock with bird song chimes or chirping plush toys, not to mention fine bird art in all kinds of media.

However, none of these gifts do much for the birds themselves unless part of the profits benefits bird conservation.

Consider turning the wild bird lover into a knowledgeable bird watcher who can contribute to citizen science bird counting efforts such as the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count or Project Feederwatch.

You could start by picking up the basic field guide, “Birds of North America” by Kenn Kaufman, for about $15 at a local bookstore and a pair of 7 x 35 Bushnell binoculars at Kmart for about $25.

If your bird watcher is more advanced, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. Do they already have a copy of “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” or “A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies” by James Bond?

Don’t try to pick out binoculars for the advanced birder. Pricey models have too many variables that must fit the individual user’s eyes.

Does your bird watcher subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest, http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com, or Birder’s World [now called BirdWatching magazine], http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com?

Both magazines are filled with advertising for all kinds of bird identification and observation gizmos, even special clothing such as field vests with pockets designed to fit field guides.

 

Chocolate

Organically grown chocolate is good for bird habitats.

However, all the latest bird watching accoutrements advertised in those magazines are merely trappings of a personal hobby and won’t help the birds if the bird watcher doesn’t share their observations and knowledge.

Feeding wild birds can be a hobby that benefits some kinds of birds directly. The gift ideas range from a simple shelf and a bag of black oil sunflower seed to elaborate spring-loaded, squirrel-proof dispensers and custom seed blends.

Don’t forget water. A large plastic dog dish filled less than 2 inches deep is easy to bring in and thaw under the kitchen tap if you aren’t ready to finance a heated bird bath.

There are other gifts that delight the bird lover/watcher and benefit birds. Three major bird conservation organizations provide informative and colorful magazines as part of membership: National Audubon Society (find your local chapter, http://www.audubon.org/search-by-zip), Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu, and American Birding Association, http://aba.org.

Perhaps the person on your gift list is already a member and is ready for a more altruistic gift. You can make a donation in their name to that organization or pick one of the many others such as the American Bird Conservancy http://www.abcbirds.org.

Maybe you are the kind person who remembers your pets at Christmas and would like to do something for the birds too. Here are suggestions.

–Avoid planting trees in grassland bird habitat. Plant more fruiting trees in town.

–Keep your cat indoors or on a leash or in a kennel at all times.

–Lobby for bird-friendly legislation and policies. It isn’t as much fun as counting birds for scientific study, but protecting habitat is the most efficient way to help wild birds.

–Conserve resources, “reduce, recycle, reuse.” Owning too much stuff wastes energy and resources which require mining, drilling, timbering, spraying – all activities usually detrimental to birds. Besides, the simple life will give you more time to enjoy bird watching.

Actually, these suggestions would all make good New Year’s resolutions.

When your shopping is done and you can finally put your feet up, you’ll be happy to know there are things you can consume, of which every ounce helps birds.

Shade-grown coffee and organic chocolate are grown in the shade of forest trees, the time-honored family farmer’s method, in Central and South America, where our neotropical birds spend the winter. The mega-farms use new varieties that require sun, which requires cutting the forests and spraying the crops, leaving no place for birds.

Jane Dorn was telling me last week that she read that the particular bee that pollinates coffee plants prefers shade, so shade-grown plants are also much more productive than those receiving chemical fertilizers.

Locally, organic coffee is offered by Coffee Express, Starbucks and sometimes City News.

If you do an Internet search, the key phrases are “organic chocolate,” which will give you mouth-watering sites like Dagoba Organic Chocolate http://www.dagobachocolate.com, and “shade-grown coffee,” where I found gourmet blends offered by Grounds for Change, http://www.groundsforchange.com.

Finally, one of the best gifts you can give someone is your time. Arrange to take your friend or family on a little bird watching field trip, either your own itinerary or with a group. The memories of real birds will be more valuable than any flock printed on a sweatshirt.

Bird tourist season begins

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

During spring migration, a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an eastern species, visit Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 6, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Out-of-towners flocking to southeast Wyoming.”

2014 Update: This year, the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count is May 17. Check the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website for details: http://home.lonetree.com/audubon.

By Barb Gorges

Every spring, for several weeks, Cheyenne experiences a flood of visitors that receives no fanfare like Frontier Days, yet the advertising is in place year round.

The influx reaches its peak mid-May. About that time, overcrowding causes some of the out-of-towners to set up camp in my backyard. One year there was no mistaking for locals the brightly-dressed visitors I had: Indigo Bunting, Lazuli Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Green-tailed Towhee, Rufous-sided Towhee, American Goldfinch and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

This big event is, of course, spring migration. Up to 150 species of birds have been counted by members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society on the annual “Big Day” count.

Just as Frontier Days brings visitors from across the country, so does spring migration. One year the celebrity was a Prairie Warbler, another year it was a Prothonotary Warbler. Both normally range only east of the Mississippi.

For birds headed further north, Cheyenne is an oasis in a sea of grass.

The mature cottonwoods in our parks and along our creeks are like billboards. The coniferous forests of our older neighborhoods and the reservoirs and creeks make this as much a haven for traveling birds as for dusty drivers on their way to Yellowstone.

Many Audubon chapters, like Cheyenne’s, have a traditional Big Day count scheduled for the peak of migration. The actual date depends on the chapter’s location because the peak of migration moves north with spring-like weather.

A few years ago, concerned birders set the second Saturday in May as International Migratory Bird Day, to catalyze attention on the decline in migratory bird populations.

Development and other changes in North American breeding areas and wintering grounds in Central and South America have been detrimental to neotropical migratory birds.

For instance, the old way of propagating coffee was to grow it under the protection of shade trees, inadvertently replacing the original forest, to the benefit of many species of birds. Modern technology has been doing away with shade trees. So bird lovers are encouraging coffee drinkers to look for and buy shade-grown coffee.

To try some locally, join Cheyenne Audubon members Friday, May 7 at Wild Wick’s Coffee, 1439 Stillwater (off Dell Range) from 7 to 9 p.m.

Then, the next morning, on International Migratory Bird Day itself, drink some more coffee to wake up and join Audubon members for a beginner’s bird walk around Lions Park, starting at the Botanic Gardens at 8 a.m.

The tourism bureau will be happy to know that the natural phenomenon of migration does bring cash to the local economy, if not on the same scale as Frontier Days.

Traditionally, the bird watching class from Casper drives in Friday night before the Big Day and meets us locals Saturday morning to check out our (or should I say, the birds’) favorite hot spots.

During these weeks, scrutinize any movement in the treetops, bushes and unkempt corners of the city. It may be more than the wind.

Thick spots on fences and phone lines may turn into kingbirds or kestrels.

Specks on the far shores of reservoirs could be sandpipers and waterfowl. If you stare at the prairie long enough, you’ll start to see shapes like curlews and godwits.

Clouds can turn into white pelicans.