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Silent skies: Bird population sees dramatic drop across North America

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Birdemic

Last month, a report in the journal “Science” identified a staggering downward trend in the bird population in the U.S. As summed up by The Guardian, America has lost about one in four birds since the 1970s.

What allows this phenomenon to fly under the radar is that these are the birds people take for granted. 

These aren’t the flashiest or most unique birds, like in the bald eagle population crisis in the 1960s. They’re the backyard birds, the ones you recognize: swallows, sparrows, finches, blackbirds. 

3 Billion Birds, a website run by members of various national bird conservation organizations, has a mission of educating people about this issue, breaking down the mind-boggling numbers into more tangible terms.

“There are 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds in North America than there were in 1970,” the website summarizes in its section on the findings of the study. This decrease is huge — “a net loss of 29% of the breeding bird population over the last half-century.”

The study itself did not suggest causes for the population drop. However, bird population declines are generally associated with factors like agricultural intensification (which reduces available habitat), pesticide use (which kills the insects that birds feed on), and human-caused mortality threats like outdoor cats and window collisions.

“The species that come out most worrisome are grassland birds … that live in the middle of the country,” professor Sarah Converse, the leader of the UW’s Quantitative Conservation Lab, said.

The factory farming and agribusiness that has increasingly come to dominate the middle of America leaves once-fertile grasslands, a vital bird habitat, wiped out and inhospitable.

“A lot of what you have is monoculture crops,” Converse said, referring to the practice of planting huge fields of a single crop, such as corn. “There is not food for birds to be there.”

After the large-scale threats of agriculture and pesticide use, the next deadliest feature of American life for birds is outdoor cats. While it’s tempting to want to give your cats free rein, they wreak havoc on the ecosystem outside your door; as invasive predators, they kill an estimated 2.6 billion birds annually in the United States and Canada.

Dr. Kaeli Swift, a corvid scientist and lecturer at the UW, has a vocal Twitter presence and often uses her platform to advocate for keeping cats indoors.

“Cats should not be allowed outside unless confined, leashed or under supervision,” Swift wrote in a tweet thread. “Outdoor cats are an ecological nightmare, they have a shorter lifespan, and they spread disease to people and animals. There’s no upside apart from our own projections.”

Window collisions are another mortality factor for birds that many of us are sadly familiar with — we saw this happen recently, though not fatally, to the beloved barred owl that apparently crashed into Allen Library last month.

There are several ways that we can all combat this, from DIYing at-home solutions to make our windows less reflective to pressuring Congress to pass the Bird-Safe Buildings Act at the federal level. This act would create standardized building regulations designed to minimize the risk posed to migrating birds all throughout America.

Even with the sensational news coverage about the loss of nearly three billion birds, if you’re thinking that you haven’t really noticed fewer birds around, you’re not alone. The changes in overall population levels, while vast and rapid on an ecological scale, are still happening too slowly to really be perceived year-to-year.

“I think it’s kind of like the proverbial frog in the boiling water,” Converse said. “If I go out this year and look at birds, and go out next year and look at birds, I’m not going to notice anything [different]. That’s why these kind of long-term monitoring data sets are so important.”

Now that we have the data, it is important to act. This isn’t only about the birds — it’s also about our wildlife in general, our ecosystems as a whole. It’s about us.

“Wild spaces make people healthier,” Converse said. “Mentally healthier, and physically healthier. These places and species are good for us, they make our lives better and richer.”

If you’re finding it difficult to care about the birds’ dramatic population decline, you might be inspired by the prose of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s seminal environmentalist book, published in 1962, that galvanized the American public to ban the pesticide DDT to save bald eagles. 

The “Silent Spring” of Carson’s title refers to the eerie stillness of a world in which familiar birds, along with their beautiful songs and reassuring chatter, have vanished. Population research shows that we are headed for that same silent future Carson predicted in 1962.

As individuals, we all have the capacity to help prevent further bird population loss in both the public and the private sphere.

“One thing you can do is get involved in organizations like the Audubon society,” Converse said. “To get involved in an organization like that is a great way to learn what’s happening, to experience firsthand the joys of getting to see birds and getting to see wildlife, and to be part of an organization that does have a voice at the national level about policies that affect wildlife.”

Converse stressed the importance of lobbying elected officials to enact environmental protections, as well as individual actions like eating local and organic produce, which has much less impact on bird habitats.

For more information on how to get involved with the conservation effort, check out this op-ed in The Seattle Times by Seattle Audubon board of directors member John Farnsworth.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor McKenzie Murray at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @merqto

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