Every birder will want to tune into a study published today in the journal Science that reaches a startling conclusion: Three billion birds — or 29 percent of the total population across all species — have been lost in North America since 1970.
The research is much more than a traditional study. All of the major bird organizations pooled resources to collect data from the last half century, track what has happened to every species and analyze the modern state of the avian landscape with a precision never before possible.
What this study means is that a sharp and widespread drop in the bird population is taking place. It includes not just the endangered species that get the most attention, but familiar, common birds like orioles, blue jays, sparrows, blackbirds that seemed to be thriving.
Grassland birds (down 53 percent) are losing habitat with the spread of farms, while coastal birds (down 37 percent) are affected by development and climate change. Populations of forest birds are down by about 30 percent from 50 years ago, and arctic birds are down 23 percent.
Go to the end of this piece for links to the many stories, opinion pieces, graphics and videos on this research. To read the Science paper itself, go to the website developed as part of this project, click “findings” at the top right and you’ll find a link.
The findings are so stark and surprising, the authors say, that they have reason to hope this might lead to the kind of public response that followed Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” that helped forge strong new conservation laws.
The research is delivered in the form of a dispassionate scientific study. But the authors –- a Who’s Who in ornithology — do not mince their words when describing the conclusions.
“This data suggests that we are facing the beginning of the end for nature as we know it,” said Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “If we continue to put economic benefits first at all costs, that’s where we are headed.”
Declines among birds have been well studied in recent years, usually focused on those most threatened. Drawing on all the previous data, decades of bird counts and 10 years of weather radar, this study stands out for its breadth of data and sweep of focus.
“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy, said in a release this afternoon. “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.”
The populations of the Eastern and Western Meadowlark (shown here) dropped by 139 million over the past 50 years, the Science study found. (Photo by Matthew Pendleton, for Cornell's Macaulay Library.)
The Dark-eyed Junco population has lost 168 million birds since 1970. (Photo by Jay McGowan for Cornell Macaulay Library.)
The primary contributors to the research, the Cornell Lab, ABC, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the Smithsonian, Georgetown University and Environmental and Climate Change Canada, offer an array of recommendations that they hope will gain momentum as these findings are understood. Here’s a link to a series of measures that average people can do to help: Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds.
The campaign that goes with the Science study includes a website, 3BillionBirds.org with the headline, “Three Billion Birds Gone; Together we can bring them back.’’ The cover photo is a Meadowlark, one of the grassland species under stress that evaporates on the page, then comes back together again.
While this study and the companion campaign will be of keen interest to birders at every level, the challenge will be to reach those outside birding circles. The campaign makes the point that the vast majority of the population in the U.S. and Canada are concerned about the environment, but aren’t fully aware of what’s happening to birds.
As you look into the study, the website and the campaign the partners are putting together, you’ll see the arguments and phrases they hope will reach that broader audience. “Birds are telling us we must act now to ensure our planet can sustain wildlife and people,’’ the website declares.
“Can you imagine a world without birdsong?” said coauthor Peter Marra, senior scientist emeritus and former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and now director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University. “It’s imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, both because the domino effects can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods — and because people all over the world cherish birds in their own right.”
For those who want to read deeply on this topic, here are some links to follow. Here’s a summary from Science.
All of the major news organizations are weighing in on this study. Here’s a story from the Washington Post, and one from the New York Times. Here’s a story from NPR, and an excellent essay from The Atlantic. Here’s National Geographic’s take on the research. Here’s a piece on the study in the Smithsonian magazine.
Here’s an opinion piece in the Washington Post by ABC’s Michael Parr, and here’s an opinion piece in the Times by Peter Marra and John Fitzpatrick, head of the Cornell Lab. Here’s an excellent essay in Scientific American that includes several excellent graphics. You will want to seek out a call to action by Fitzpatrick in the upcoming “Living Bird,” the Cornell magazine.