Bird populations in the US and Canada have plummeted by 30 percent since 1970 – here’s why, and what we can do.
A landmark 2019 study revealed that we’ve lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970 – that is one in four birds in less than a human lifetime. We are talking ecological crisis here; a “canary in a coal mine” situation gone viral. We are losing once-common species across most biomes, everything from swallows and sparrows to warblers and meadowlarks. A world without birds would be an ecological disaster and decidedly less delightful.
The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) points out these grim details from the study:
• Grassland birds have seen a 53-percent drop in population (more than 720 million birds) since 1970.
• Shorebirds, already dangerously low in numbers, have lost more than one-third of their population.
• The volume of spring migration has dropped by 14 percent in just the past decade.
You can see more about the study in the ABC video at the bottom, but in the meantime, there are things that each of us can do to help the birds (and many of these actions will help other organisms as well).
A number of the country’s important bird groups and institutions (ABC, Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, et cetera) have partnered to create the fantastic 3BillionBirds.org (3BB) in response to the study. The group has published a guide of simple actions that we can take to make a difference, which has inspired the list below.
1. Make Windows Bird Friendly
Up to an estimated one billion birds die in the U.S. each year after hitting windows. You can install screens or break up reflections using film, paint, stickers, or string. Talk to friends and businesses about doing the same.
2. Keep Cats Inside
Aside from habitat loss, cats are the number one killer of birds in the United States. Cats are a non-native domesticated species, when they go outside, they prey on native bird species—and it is devastating.
3. Ditch the Lawn, Plant Native Species
More than 10 million acres of wilderness in the U.S. were developed from 1982 to 1997, meaning that birds (and everything else) have lost habitat. Lawns and pavement provide little for wildlife – and get this, these is more than 63 million acres of lawn in the U.S. alone. If all of that were replaced with native species, wildlife would be doing much, much better.
Also, think outside of the box when planning your landscaping. For example, you might plant a wildlife hedge instead of building a fence.
Note: If you are planting native species to attract birds, it is your responsibility to endure your windows are bird-friendly.
4. Avoid Pesticides
They may be intended for insects, but it’s not that simple. The U.S. uses more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides every year. “The nation’s most widely used insecticides, called neonicotinoids or ‘neonics,’ are lethal to birds and to the insects that birds consume,” notes 3BB. “Common weed killers used around homes, such as 2, 4-D and glyphosate (used in Roundup), can be toxic to wildlife, and glyphosate has been declared a probable human carcinogen.” Insecticides also kill the insects that birds would like to be eating.
For these reasons, buy organic produce whenever you can and use non-toxic pesticides around your home.
5. Drink Bird-Friendly Coffee
How do coffee plantations in faraway places harm birds in The States? More than 42 species of North American songbirds migrate south to winter in coffee plantations, including orioles, warblers, and thrushes. Seventy-five percent of coffee farms destroy the forests that birds (and other creatures) need, so that they can grow their coffee in the sun. But coffee can also be grown in the shade, which keeps the the forest canopy in tact and helps migratory birds survive the winter.
6. Reduce Your Use of Plastic
The planet is becoming covered in plastic; recycling is ineffective and since plastic does not degrade naturally, it sits around polluting the environment for centuries. 3BB notes, “It’s estimated that 4,900 million metric tons of plastic have accumulated in landfills and in our environment worldwide, polluting our oceans and harming wildlife such as seabirds, whales, and turtles that mistakenly eat plastic, or become entangled in it.” As it pertains to birds, at least 80 seabird species ingest plastic, thinking that it is food.
7. Become a Citizen Scientist
There are not enough scientists to track the world’s birds, which is where the rest of us come in. “To understand how birds are faring, scientists need hundreds of thousands of people to report what they’re seeing in backyards, neighborhoods, and wild places around the world. Without this information, scientists will not have enough timely data to show where and when birds are declining around the world,” explains 3BB. To that end, all of us can help by joining a bird project.
Birds need the government to show some consideration for their plight. They need leaders who don’t weaken wildlife acts, who don’t open up protected areas, and who don’t OK “emergency” use of harmful pesticides, for starters. The birds need leaders who will not do all of the above, and who WILL treat our natural resources as the precious treasures they are, who will defend and strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and who will advance climate solutions. Is that so much to ask? Since the birds don’t have a say in who is running things, it’s up to us to vote on their behalf.