Where Did All The Birds Go?

Those of us who enjoy the wide range of wild birds in Brown County are concerned. We had a summer and winter with a poor showing in all bird populations, and with spring approaching we have to wonder if they will return. 

According to Ken Rosenberg, senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy,  studies reveal that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent or three billion birds, “a massive reduction in the abundance of birds.” 

  “Tremendous losses are shown across diverse groups of birds and habitats, from songsters such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows and backyard birds including sparrows,”said Rosenberg in Outdoor News magazine. His study points out that birds are indicators of environmental health, signaling that natural systems across the U.S. and Canada are now being so severely impacted by human activities that they no longer support the same robust wildlife populations. His findings show that of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90 percent belong to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows – common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control.

“These data are consistent with what we’re seeing elsewhere with other taxa showing massive declines, including insects and amphibians,” said Peter Marra, former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center “It’s imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, both because the effects can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods — and because people all over the world cherish birds in their own right. Can you imagine a world without birdsong?”

Pervasive use of pesticides is associated with widespread declines in insects, an essential food source for birds. Climate change is expected to compound these challenges by altering habitats and threatening plant communities that birds need to survive. More research is needed to pinpoint primary causes for declines in individual species.

“The story is not over,” said Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy. “There are so many ways to help save birds. Some require policy decisions such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We can also work to ban harmful pesticides and properly fund effective bird conservation programs. Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save the lives of millions of birds — actions like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors, and protecting habitat.”

The study points to a few rebounds from human efforts. Waterfowl have made a recovery over the past 50 years, made possible by investments in conservation by hunters and billions of dollars of government funding for wetland protection and restoration. Raptors such as the Bald Eagle have also made a comeback since the 1970s, after the harmful pesticide DDT was banned and recovery efforts through endangered species legislation in the U.S. and Canada provided critical protection.

“Birds are always moving and changing their habitat based on the weather and boom and bust resources,” said John Loz, president of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region. “You may not be seeing birds, but they are still around.” 

By Michael Jeffries

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