Why 3 billion birds vanished: Understanding the startling new research

by Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal
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First in a series

Many causes contribute to the losses. Solutions will be just as complex.

Three billion birds have vanished in North America in the span of a single lifetime. They’re just gone. It’s as simple as that. But at the same time, this staggering finding from the study of bird populations published last weekj in the journal Science is so complex — the number so large — it’s hard to get your arms around it.

What does it mean to the environment, to the balance of nature, to the species themselves, that roughly a quarter of the avian population has disappeared since 1970?

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore these and others questions raised by the research that has uncovered a crisis over the future of birds in U.S. and Canada. Upcoming posts will look at why people should care, what these findings mean for other segments of wildlife and where the research will go from here.

The study shows that a combination of forces more powerful than previously thought is wreaking havoc across almost all bird species, according to its authors, scientists and researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Smithsonian, the American Bird Conservancy and four other institutions.

Some of the causes are indisputable: The most obvious is the way the places birds live are being developed at a pace affecting not just endangered species but our most common birds as well. It runs from the general to the specific. For example,  the loss of grasslands to farming and housing has cost of the lives of half the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks and a huge numbers of sparrows. Many coastal species are hurt by the fact that so many people now live along beaches and waterways that birds are being squeezed out. At the same time, rising water levels are impacting the shallows where many species live and breed.

And then there’s the problem of insects. As their names imply, species like flycatchers and swallows survive on bugs, and they’re disappearing, too, due in part to newer types of powerful insecticides called Neonicotinoids. Warming trends are throwing off the life cycles of birds and cutting into their nesting and breeding seasons that fuel future generations.

A Scientific American graphic on the study.

The declines have been devastating to birds, but they also signal broader shifts in environments that all life forms depends on.

“We can do better, and we must, if only in our own self-interest, because trouble for birds means trouble for us as well,” Cornell Lab CEO John Fitzpatrick and Peter Marra, director of the newly created Georgetown Environmental Initiative, wrote in an essay for the New York Times this week.

While some causes are clear, the declines of certain species mystify researchers. The loss of millions of migratory birds — which make up about 40 percent of overall population — are a puzzle, since they rely on environments spread all across the hemisphere and make arduous trips twice a year that expose them to all sorts of hazards.

There is encouraging news in this project: The seven sponsoring organizations, along with many supporting partners, have come together to conduct the study and develop a comprehensive set of responses. The initial phase is focused on getting the word our and raising awareness across the U.S. and Canada. The organizations then want to build on the research to push for protections and conservation measures. They’ll also conduct further study to better understand causes and zero in on possible solutions.

A look at the impacts on common birds in a graphic from the New York Times.

As part of the push for awareness, the study is accompanied by a new website called 3billionbirds.org, which includes the video at the top of this post.  Watching this short film is a good way to turn the study’s mind-numbing numbers into concrete images from the front lines of the birding world. 

To help explain how the declines are playing across various species, we’ve sprinkled this page with the best graphics created by Cornell, the American Bird Conservancy and some of the news organizations that have written about the study.

Many of the news reports compared the findings to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring that helped launch the environmental campaign that led to the banning of DDT. That in turn paved the way for the revival of such iconic species as the Bald Eagle and Osprey that today are well-known success stories.

A New York Times graphic on the regional impacts of the declines.

This resurgence is seen as a model for the kind of campaign now needed to combat the declines. But the earlier campaign was aimed at a single chemical, while today’s challenges flow from a whole assortment of forces. 

Still, the bird organizations say the steep declines across so many species should provide a powerful motivation. The alternative, allowing hundreds of birds to decline to the point of extinction, is unthinkable, they say.

“The loss of nearly three billion birds signals a looming crisis that we have the power to stop,” study authors Fitzpatrick and Marra wrote in their New York Time piece. “We call on all our lawmakers, political candidates and voters across the continent to place renewed value on protecting our common home — the great tapestry of natural systems we share with other species and must protect for future generations.”

In an essay in the Washington Post about the need for action, the ABC’s Michael Parr wrote:

“While environmental news such as this new research on bird declines often tends to sound negative, it is simply data that we can choose to act on — or not. It’s a bit like hearing you have elevated cholesterol: You can choose to ignore it, but if you do, worse consequences likely await. We now have a choice to make. Let’s seize this moment to take care of the health of our planet, birds and all.”

Here’s an excellent essay by nature writer Margaret Renkl that goes into detail on what the average person can do to help combat the declines. 

 

 

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