10 things you can do to help stop the alarming decline in birds

Part of a series

The recent study that found a quarter of the bird population has been lost in the U.S. and Canada made such a big splash that it had one unexpected consequence: Some people came away thinking things are too far gone to do anything about it.

The group of organizations that sponsored the research say the opposite is the case — that now is the perfect time to confront the crisis.

Scientist Ken Rosenberg/Photo Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“What we’re saying is that this is a lot of loss, but it’s still at a point where we can turn things around,’’ said scientist Ken Rosenberg, the lead researcher on the study.  “We’re not saying all these birds are going to go extinct. We’re saying it’s so much easier and less costly to be proactive, to work on this while the birds are still coming.’’

The research published in the journal Science found that the total number of birds of breeding age lost in the past 50 years has reached 3 billion. This statistic represents the volume of birds not being replenished during the avian life cycle, creating a trend with alarming potential. The total population in North America is now about 7 billion birds, down from 10 billion in 1970.

The consortium of organizations — including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Bird Conservancy, the Smithsonian, Georgetown University, and Audubon – put together a mix of solutions, from pushing for legislation, to increasing protection for endangered species, to limiting deadly pesticides.

But at the heart of the initial campaign is this simple idea: Average people can make a difference by taking a few basic steps around the house.

This post is part of a series delving into the Science research and its impacts. Click here to view an initial report on the findings, and here for a piece about how to make sense of the enormous dimensions of lost birds. Watch for future articles on why we should care and more detail on what can do done to combat the declines. 

Here are 10 things any of us can do to help. The list is taken from the consortium’s recommendations, interviews with the study’s authors this week and reactions and reviews that the report generated. 

  • Safeguard your windows against bird collisions: About a billion birds die each year from crashing into glass they mistake for airspace. You can protect birds by putting up screens, breaking up reflections that confuse birds and marking outdoor windows. For practical tips on how to do this, click here.
  • Keep cats indoors: One of the biggest threats to birds is the huge number of outdoor and feral cats. Cats kill an estimated 2.6 billion birds each year in the U.S. and Canada. The consortium says the solution, keeping cats indoors, is good for both birds and cats. Here’s some guidance. 
  • Avoid plastics: Disposable plastics, such grocery bags, wraps, straws and silverware, often end up in landfills or in the oceans. Birds, fish and turtles can die when they eat the plastic or become entangled in it.
  • Put up a bird feeder: As habitat for birds has decreased, backyard feeders have become more important. You can help birds by feeding them, and at the same time attract year-round and migratory birds that you can enjoy at home.
  • Reduce lawns and non-native plants that don’t support birds: The steady conversion of land for housing and other development destroys habitat that birds must rely on. Development isn’t likely to slow, but raising native plants enables you to support many species that coexist with people. Here’s an Audubon site that helps you determine appropriate plants for where you live..
  • Go a step further and deliberately create bird habitat: You can help create habitat by letting dead trees remain as homes for birds, building a brush pile that certain species favor and planting nut- and fruit-bearing trees. A good summary of these and other steps can be found in this essay published last week in the New York Times.
  • Avoid the use of pesticides in your household – as well as in your food. The ban on DDT 50 years ago helped save such species as the Osprey and the Bald Eagle. Today the use of pesticides, in particular a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, is harming birds and the insects they rely on for food. The greater problem is in farming, but avoiding the household versions of these pesticides can make a difference. The consortium suggests going one step further to consume organic foods to support the use of pesticide-free farming.
  • Support legislation to protect birds: A number of bills pending in Congress would help reduce the losses. They include legislation to promote bird-friendly construction and an important bill called The Recovering American Wildlife Act. It would provide $1.4 billion to state and federal wildlife agencies to help a variety of endangered wildlife species. Another worthy bill, Saving America’s Pollinators Act, would prohibit the use of neonicotinoids pesticides altogether.
  • Contribute to bird organizations: The struggle to save birds will also require more ambitious and expensive efforts to protect land parcels and support research. Each of the major bird organizations – Cornell, the American Bird Conservancy and Audubon – play complimentary roles. Contributions are a big part of funding their work.
  • Join one of the “citizen science” projects that help track birds by reporting what you see: We can all contribute to the study of birds by reporting sightings to Cornell and Audubon. This helps track bird populations – and also supplies birders with guidance on what birds you can see and where. Click here for information on Cornell’s eBird app. Here’s information on Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative. 
John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab

Some of these suggestions may seem small compared to the size of the problem. But there’s power in numbers, said John Fitzpatrick, one of the country’s leading bird experts and director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a primary sponsor of the research.

“The idea is that we need to give people things they can do on a daily basis that make a difference,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you multiply that by millions, which can turn into billions, we will be able to change the direction of the needle.”

The consortium is working on other measures as well. Go to the website 3billionbirds.org for more details on things you can do on many of these suggestions, as well as links to the Science report, conservation measures and ways you can get involved in this project.

Ken Rosenberg, the lead author and scientist who works with both Cornell and the American Bird Conservancy, said the next phase of research will seek to break down the results by regions to determine how the losses are playing out in different places.

Future research will delve more deeply into the causes of the decline, said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy.

Some are obvious, such as the loss of habitat and the impacts of climate change. Others are hard to pin down.

Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy

“We need to dig into the threats more,” Parr said. “It’s tough, because nature is not a laboratory where you can say, ‘Oh, let’s remove the cat threat and see what happens.’ You just can’t do that. More threats might be coming that will muddy the picture.”

The researchers agree that while more study is needed, now is the time for action. There’s still time to address the crisis, but nobody can say how much time.

“I don’t think we can wait until we have perfect science,” Parr said. “It’s clear right now that there’s a combination of threats, some of which are more serious, some not. We should focus on the threats we can see immediately.”



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2 responses to “10 things you can do to help stop the alarming decline in birds”

  1. I have had interesting discussions with students about cats and bird predation. From the management of feral cat colonies to the combo of bird feeders and backyard cats, it appears that cats may be the largest anthropogenic pressure on bird populations. The discussions soon go to the existential, whether cats need to hunt. Though most accept the argument that it is not central to a dog’s existence, many are less willing to accept the same for cats (though we knew a cat named Tiffany that exhibited a profound lack of hunting prowess…). We don’t accept feral dogs or dogs on the loose, but somehow cats have claimed a niche in our human landscape that is difficult to to budge.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal


      Thanks so much for this great comment. Such an interesting point.


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