A study published recently in the journal Science reveals that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds. The results show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats – from iconic songbirds such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows, as well as backyard birds including sparrows. In fact, three out of every four Meadowlarks have vanished.
“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” said Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. “We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds.”
Of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90 percent belong to 12 just families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows – common, widespread species that play essential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control. If we lose these species, it won’t just be bad for birds – it will be disastrous for humankind.
“The connection between birds and humans is undeniable—we share the same fate. This is a bird emergency with a clear message: the natural world humans depend on is being paved, logged, eroded and polluted. You don’t need to look hard for the metaphor: birds are the canaries in the coal mine that is the earth’s future,” said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society.
Within these results, certain groups of birds were particularly hard hit. Grassland birds saw a 53-percent reduction in population – more than 720 million birds – since 1970. Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population. Furthermore, the volume of spring migrations, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14 percent in just the past decade.
Since birds are indicators of environmental health, these worrying findings suggest 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.
With these facts in mind, we should all plan to feed our birds this winter while their food source is scant, avoid pesticides in our gardens, and thoughtfully consider our actions which adversely affect the environment. A world without birds is unimaginable.
*The Audubon Society, founded in 1905, is the oldest non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation. It is named in honor John James Audubon who observed, painted, cataloged, and described the birds of North America in 1827-38.
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