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Bird Calamity

Bayou-Diversity (29 September 2019) An article recently published in the journal Science rattled the American conservation community like no other. The paper summed up the results of multi-faceted research by the premier avian science groups in the country. It included analyses of years of breeding population data on 529 species of birds. Additionally, it considered decades of radar data that track bird migrations. It’s the best science that exists, and it says there are almost 3 billion fewer birds in North America than 48 years ago; more than 1 in 4 have disappeared.

Breaking down the data revealed more surprises. Birds from many different groups are declining in many different habitats, not just forest birds or birds that were scarce to begin with. The list includes wood thrushes, white-crowned sparrows, meadowlarks, and the juncos that once swarmed under our feeders. The study also shows the trend may be getting worse as there has been a 14 percent decrease in nocturnal spring migrants in just the last 10 years.

Determining cause of the declines was not within the scope of the study, but most researchers point toward evidence in other work that reveals a number of issues: habitat loss on many fronts; climate change; the reality that our world is awash in pesticides that kill insects and plants vital to birds; outdoor cats; collisions with buildings and other structures.

So what can be done? Birding organizations have recommended helpful practices for everyone: avoid pesticides; use native plants in your landscape (instead of sterile, high-maintenance lawns); keep cats indoors; make windows safer for birds; reduce plastic use (and thus the need for oil and gas development in bird-sensitive areas); drink shade-grown coffee (to reduce the need to clear tropical forests for coffee growing). Also at this critical time in our history when we seem to be rushing toward a number of cliffs beyond which the natural world will cease to exist as humans know it, the most effective approach may be political action. When we should be doubling down to start new initiatives to help birds, we have instead seen in the last two years assaults from Washington on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other regulations and policies that have long benefited birds. Make sure the people you vote for are not science-averse and are capable of understanding that our well-being is inseparably tied to the well-being of the natural world.

It is encouraging that most of the people involved in this study believe the declines can be stopped in most cases and that populations can recover, at least to some extent, if there is a collective will to address the calamity. We have good examples. The continental waterfowl population has increased markedly since 1970, primarily because of proactive, large-scale wetland conservation efforts. Likewise, once imperiled raptors such as bald eagles are thriving since the ban on DDT took place. The measure of the problem now though is more complex, the potential outcome more ominous. It will not be solved unless a majority moves beyond the hand-wringing stage. (Photo credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)


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