Bird Populations Are Declining In North America

Clay Curtis
September 21, 2019

But birds are much easier to monitor.

That's the word applied conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg used to describe his team's reaction to their study that's tallied a massive loss of birds in the continental USA and Canada.

The findings are similar to drops in bird populations elsewhere in the world, researchers say.

The bird researchers analyzed how populations changed for 529 avian species in the USA and Canada over about five decades using bird-monitoring data and a network of 143 radar stations. "Our results also provide insights into actions we can take to reverse the declines".

"Three billion was a pretty astounding number for us", said lead author Kenneth Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at Cornell University and American Bird Conservancy.

A meadowlark, one of the species that saw its population drastically decline in the past decades. "But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds", Rosenberg in a statement.

The findings showed that of almost 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. 3 billion birds lost over those 50 years.

Previous research has warned that domestic cats, glass buildings, pesticide use and climate change all play a part.

Peter Marra, senior author of the study and director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University, pointed out that "You only need to fly across the country to see that we've drastically changed the face of the earth". This is a bird emergency with a clear message: the natural world humans depend on is being paved, logged, eroded and polluted.

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Shorebirds, like the Sanderling, dropped a third in 50 years. It can be done, Smith said, as it has for bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The species for which there weren't enough data to make firm estimates occur only in small numbers. Even starlings - a species that became a fast-breeding pest after its introduction to the United States in 1890 - have dwindled by 83 million birds, a 49% decline. "Creating more and more hostile environments in places that used to support quite a few birds". "But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders".

Common birds with decreasing populations include meadowlarks, dark-eyed juncos, horned larks and red-winged blackbirds, says Rosenberg.

Not all bird populations are shrinking.

The loss of common birds has happened before, like the extinction of the passenger pigeon, according to the study.

"Birds are the quintessential ecosystem indicators".

Researchers fear that a continued decrease in the bird population could throw the continent's ecosystem out of balance.

So what can be done?

They said more research is needed to pinpoint primary causes for declines in individual species. Thanks to focused efforts, bluebirds are increasing and scientists say people can help keep that trend going by avoiding use of pesticides and drinking bird-friendly coffee. They'll respond rapidly. In five or ten years, we can see these species start to increase. "It's like a very large corporation in a marketplace - they're diversified across all areas", said co-author Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy. The flutelike song of the western meadowlark - the official bird of six US states - is growing more rare.

The Audubon Society is calling for protection of bird-rich habitats, such as the Great Lakes and the Colorado River Basin, as well as for upholding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which the Trump administration is trying to roll back.

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