You have probably heard from one of many news sources, like the NY Times and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, that birds are vanishing. Somewhere between 25 and 30% of all birds in North America have disappeared since 1970. That’s about three billion breeding birds. I have heard estimates of up to 40%.
It’s devastating news, but not new. Ornithologists have been tracking this decline for years. Having been an active ornithologist over that period, I noticed local declines of birds. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and even House Sparrows, are rare in my area. House Sparrows, those ubiquitous pests, almost gone? Incredible. Why?
There are a number of culprits we can place the blame on – windows, cats, wind farms, microwave towers, cars, pollution, you name it. But the research reports indicate that habitat loss and pesticides are the biggest problems. And certainly climate change. Grassland birds showed the biggest decline, probably because that’s where most development takes place. It’s easier to plow up a grassland and pave it than to do so to a forest. Waterfowl actually showed an increase and I suspect that’s because they nest in relatively undisturbed regions in the far north and migrate south to marshes that remain untouched by developers.
It’s appalling to realize that birds are declining at such a precipitous rate – birds that eat insects, pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and make our life richer. They are essential parts of our ecosystems, and at least as important, they are ecological indicators. Like the canary in the coal mine that warned miners about dangerous gases building up, changes in the avifauna indicate that something is up in the ecosystem and it’s not good. If birds are disappearing, what about plants, frogs, mice, deer, fish, snakes, insects and other invertebrates?
As we destroy habitat and replace it with houses, mini-malls, and gas stations, we are not only eliminating the lives of plants and animals, but we are making our world more sterile and less healthy. Forests and grasslands clean and cool our air and filter our water. To protect the land, we need to protect birds.
Because birds are of the most interest in anyone who cares for the outdoors, birds can lead the way to protecting the environment. But even the most enthusiastic bird watching groups, even those with substantial financial resources, cannot stop the unrelenting demand for more houses, more schools, more roads, and more yogurt shops.
In 1970 the population of the United States stood at about 200 million people. Today is it 329 million. In 40 years, 30 percent more people, 30 percent fewer birds. Makes sense, but it’s terrifying.