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John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has spent his career talking about why people should care about birds.
This fall, that argument has shifted to include a tougher, more compelling question: Why should people care that a quarter of the bird population has been lost in the past 50 years?
Fitzpatrick is one of the world’s leading voices on behalf of birds and a visionary researcher whose career roughly spans that half century of declines.
“The question of why people should care is so important,’’ he says. “The answer is a series of things, on a number of different levels.’’
He starts with the power and beauty of birds and our relationship with them. “Birds are not an optional lifestyle for us,’’ he says. “They sing to us emotionally, spiritually. They appear in poetry from 2,000 years ago. They are part of our fabric.’’
Birds also serve as a kind of messenger from the front lines of the environment we all rely upon, he says.
“We need to watch the birds as a barometer of the things that are going on,’’ he says. “We need to listen to what the birds are telling us, and the birds are telling us that things are getting steadily harder for them.’’
The news that about 3 billion birds have been lost from the overall population came in a major study published in the journal Science three weeks ago. Cornell joined with the American Bird Conservancy, the Smithsonian, Audubon and Georgetown University to assemble the most comprehensive look at North American bird populations ever conducted.
The news was not a surprise, since the declines in the overall volume of birds have been the subject of many studies. They are obvious to anyone watching birds over time. But the dimensions of the losses were shocking, as was the discovery they are occurring not just with endangered birds but across almost all species, including such common birds as Cardinals and Blue Jays.