We are the canaries in the coal mine

By Anne Schmauss
For The New Mexican
Posted 10/17/19

Over the past half-century, North America has lost almost 30 percent of its bird population, or around 3 billion birds, according to a new study published last month.

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We are the canaries in the coal mine


Over the past half-century, North America has lost almost 30 percent of its bird population, or around 3 billion birds.

That's according to a new study published last month in the journal Science by researchers who brought together a variety of information that has been collected on 529 bird species since 1970. This stunning news signals a widespread ecological crisis.

Scientists knew the population of some bird species was in decline but also knew that some were increasing. Some thought it might be a wash and that there may simply be a shift in the total numbers of birds that have adapted to living around humans. Well, it's not a wash. It's not even close.

The effects of climate change, urbanization, the use of pesticides and loss of habitat have combined to be devastating to the birds in North America.

To gather the information, scientists looked at data from long-running counts like the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Study. They combined that data with 10 years' worth of data on migrating bird flocks detected by 143 weather radar installations. The consensus seems to be that we are likely seeing substantial declines in our bird populations, particularly migratory birds.

"Depressing but not surprising," is how Kristen Ruegg, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, put it.

Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, and the study's lead author, says results show that more than 90 percent of the loss can be attributed to just a dozen bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches.

The report tells us that some of the common birds particularly affected include meadowlarks, dark-eyed juncos, horned larks and red-winged blackbirds, all birds we see in New Mexico. Grassland birds have suffered a 53 percent decrease in their numbers, and more than a third of the shorebird population has been lost.

Some bird populations have increased. "The numbers of ducks and geese are larger than they've ever been, and that's not an accident," Rosenberg says. "It's because hunters who primarily want to see healthy waterfowl populations for recreational hunting have raised their voices."

The template for reversal of this trend exists. Conservation works. Hunters have proved it. I urge you to go to 3billionbirds.org to find out more about the study and what to do to help. It will tell you to spread the word about what's happening to raise awareness about this urgent issue.

It'll also urge you to make your windows safer to prevent bird strikes (window decals can be quite effective). It will encourage you to keep cats indoors. Outdoor cats, according to some estimates, kill 2.6 billion birds each year in the United States. Having less of a lawn, not using pesticides and growing populations of native plants will help birds, as does providing food and water. Using less plastic and generally paying attention to how we treat the planet will also benefit birds.

If we all work to do our part and we spread awareness, that's good. But I believe that public policy and legislation need to play a significant role. Laws banning DDT decades ago made a huge difference in the recovery of many bird species, including the bald eagle. Problems this big take leadership and changes in laws. Just like hunters have done to protect healthy habitat for waterfowl, we need to follow their lead and raise our voices not only to protect the planet for birds, but for ourselves.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of "For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard" and "Birdhouses of the World." She is a regular columnist for the New Mexican.


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