Skip to main content

3 Billion Birds Gone - Do We Care?

Lead Summary

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared from the U.S. and Canadian avian populations since 1970. It is a stunning number and one that should give us a sense of shame, dread and motivation.

We’ve always heard about the species that go extinct  - the dodo and the passenger pigeon being among the most well-known. Now a study published by the journal “Science” brings light to a disturbing tragedy unfolding in plain sight, but so slowly that we don’t really notice.

Using past research, counts provided by bird enthusiasts, the Christmas Bird Count, the North American Breeding Bird Survey, and 143 NEXRAD weather radars spread out across the U.S., researchers looked at what was happening with most of our common bird species. The weather satellites not only capture rainfall, but flocks of migrating birds as well.

 The findings of their study show that common bird populations in the U.S. and Canada have fallen 29 percent in just 48 years. More than 90 percent of the loss can be attributed to just 12 bird families, among them “sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, and finches,” the study says.

In sheer numbers, our forests have suffered the worst with an estimated 1 billion birds lost. Not far behind are the grasslands of America and Canada with 700 million birds gone, but those numbers represent over half of all grassland birds, the researchers found. The study reported that 74 percent of grassland bird species are in decline.
We think of the vast Great Plains should be a haven for grassland birds; not so.

“The Great Plains lost more grassland to agriculture in 2014 than the Brazilian Amazon lost to deforestation,” says a report from the World Wildlife Fund. As crop genetics improve the ability of corn, soybean, and wheat crops to grow in less fertile soils and more challenging climates, more of the Great Plains fall under the plow.

But it isn’t just habitat lost as farmland acres expand, birds also fall victim to pesticides used “in both breeding and wintering areas,” the study says.

It should be no surprise that shorebirds along the U.S. and Canadian coasts are also suffering; these areas  are the most densely populated with humans. The researchers found that shorebirds are seeing a steep 37 percent in their species.

Climate change is also having an impact on bird populations as it alters the survival of the foods sources birds feed on, disrupting entire ecosystems. Light pollution disorients birds. Windmills and buildings cause bird deaths. Cats, the feral ones that roam the countryside and the pets owners let outside, kill large numbers of birds.

While birds are enjoyable to watch in the wild and at our bird feeders, they also play an important role in our tightly interconnected ecosystems. It’s a role we ignore at our risk. Birds provide numerous benefits to ecosystems through seed dispersal, pollination and pest control, the study says. They are part of a tight biological web whose degradation could affect our food supply as well as the spread of disease.

 “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg said. He led the international team of scientists in the study of bird losses.  “And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Adam Smith of the Environment and Climate Change Canada says the startling loss of birds in North America calls for “a radical shift in conservation strategy.”

 “It’s really a wake-up call for the importance of moving beyond just a single species, endangered species conservation framework,” Smith said. “We rescued the Trumpeter Swan and the Peregrine Falcon, and we should be proud and happy about those successes. But we’re at a stage where, given these extreme declines in so many species, we need to move beyond that framework.”

Conservationists, hunting organizations, and state and federal wildlife agencies, have all worked to improve habit for waterfowl with positive effects. They are among the few species that are actually seeing an increase.

But the researchers who conducted the bird study say it is time for such efforts to also focus on restoring habitat for all birds.

 “History shows that conservation action and legislation work,” the report says.” Our results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification, coastal disturbance, and direct anthropogenic mortality, all exacerbated by climate change, to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna.”

Minnesota’s implementation of a buffer law is providing an estimated 11,000 acres of habitat. The law required buffers of at least 30 feet wide, and an average of 50 feet wide, to be installed along the state’s public streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands by Nov. 1, 2017. Starting Nov. 1, 2018, 16.5-foot buffers were to be installed on public ditches.

It will help with bird and pollinator survival, but it isn’t nearly enough. More acres will fall to the plow, more habitat drained, more chemicals poured on the land, more forests cut down, and more land paved over.

The farther we are removed from nature the more it is an abstract concept in our lives. Most people could care less about a lost species when the loss means nothing in their daily lives. We will be forced to care at a point perhaps in the not-to-distant future when the consequences of abuse and neglect demand payment.

Sign up for News Alerts

Subscribe to news updates