Wisconsin ranks second in the nation for people who regularly enjoy watching and feeding wild birds according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. However, this bad news, good news story is important to both birders and non-birders alike because it concerns the very health of our environment.
First the bad news. The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen 29 percent since 1970 as published in the September 19, 2019 issue of the prestigious journal Science. In other words, we have lost almost three billion birds in the last 50 years! The results show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats — from iconic songsters such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows and warblers and backyard birds including sparrows.
Why is this bird loss happening? I present a digest of what is happening in my column, but this short Youtube video answers this question in visual detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdzU84AyCdI&feature=youtu.be
There are likely many cumulative causes causing this alarming loss of birds, but the most important include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides.
Habitat includes the necessary food, water, shelter, and living space all living organisms require to successfully carry out their life cycles without undue stress and loss of life. Habitat is an animal’s home and, when its lost, it can stress out the animal so much that it may not be able to survive or reproduce. For a human analogy, what would happen if you were away at work, or on a trip, or whatever, and came back to find your home had been destroyed by a tornado, flood, hurricane, or forest fire? Suddenly you find yourself without your primary source of food, water, shelter, and living space. Wouldn’t that stress you out? I know it would me. It does the same for wildlife when they lose their habitats or homes.
Pesticides are vital to producing healthy food crops by targeting pest species that can destroy crops, but they sometimes indirectly kill beneficial insect species too. Many birds, like warblers and swallows, need insect food to survive. There is study after study documenting steeply declining insect populations that seem to parallel declining bird populations.
For example, there has been a 32 percent decline in aerial insectivores such as swallows, purple martins, and chimney swifts, among others, since 1970; that is 160 million birds lost! In fact, at our own Nature Education Center here in Fifield, we have had a steady decline in tree swallows using our nest boxes in recent years.
Those of us who have done research on birds over the decades have noticed subtle but alarming declines in some bird species that the general public wouldn’t ordinarily notice — until they are gone, like the passenger pigeon. This new, alarming report verifies for bird researchers what they have been observing and alerts the general public with solid data as to what is happening with some of our birds
Why is the loss of billions of birds important to the general public? Common bird species are vital to healthy ecosystems which are important to other wildlife and the well-being and health of humans as well. Birds pollinate flowers, help control insect pests, and spread seeds that help regenerate our wetlands, prairies, and forests. For example, our forests are important for many reasons, one of the most important being they serve as watersheds that supply life-giving drinking water to millions of people and wildlife.
Now for the good news. There is something we have done and can do about declining bird populations. We know conservation investments work. For example, the banning of DDT and passing of endangered species laws for species like American bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans have worked to restore their populations. In fact, there has been a gain of 15 million raptors since 1970 due to conservation efforts. Another success story is that waterfowl populations are up by 35 million, or 56 percent, as a result of government and private funding for wetland protection and restoration.
So, what can you do to help protect and restore bird populations? Each of us can help in our own way with the skills we have including supporting conservation organizations with our financial resources. Here is a digest of seven simple actions you can do to help birds. For details, visit this website: https://www.3billionbirds.org/7-simple-actions
1. Make windows safer, day and night. It is estimated that up to one billion birds die each year hitting windows in the United States and Canada.
2. Keep cats indoors. Cats are estimated to kill 2.6 billion birds annually and the number one reason for loss of birds, aside from habitat loss. And, the good news for cats and cat lovers is, cats live longer when kept indoors!
3. Reduce lawns, landscape with native plants instead. More than ten million acres of land in the United States were converted to developed land between 1982 to 1997, reducing the amount of refueling and resting habitat for migrating birds and by eliminating nesting areas where birds raise and feed their young.
4. Avoid or minimize pesticide use. More than a billion pounds of pesticides are applied in the United States each year, some of which are toxic to birds and the insects they consume.
5. Drink bird-friendly coffee. Three-quarters of the world’s coffee farms grow their plants in the sun destroying forests that birds and other wildlife need for food and shelter. Shade-grown coffee preserves the forest canopy that helps migratory birds survive winters.
6. Protect our planet from plastics. It is estimated that 4,900 million metric tons of plastic have accumulated in our environment worldwide, polluting our oceans and harming wildlife such as seabirds, whales, and turtles that mistakenly eat plastic, or become entangled in it.
7. Watch birds, share what you see through citizen science, and support bird conservation organizations. Tracking the health of the world’s 10,000 bird species is an immense job and scientists and wildlife managers need your help. Join a project such as eBird, a Christmas bird count, Project Feeder Watch, or a Breeding Bird Survey, among others. Much of the data from those projects were used to determine that we have lost one in four birds since 1970.
If each one of us does something to help, we can slow the impact of bird decline, or even reverse it. That is good news for all of us and the birds.