John Winkelman

John Winkelman

Halloween is a perfect time for sharing scary stories, and tales based on true facts can be really frightening. Since 1970, nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America, including dramatic numbers of some common favorites.

A study published in the journal Science in September released information that bird populations were down 29 percent in the United States and Canada. The losses were documented on a wide variety of species, including meadowlarks, swallows and sparrows.

“We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species, but for the first time, the results showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds,” said Ken Rosenberg, a senior scientist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and a lead author of the study.

Forests have lost 1 billion birds, and grassland populations have declined by 53 percent, accounting for an additional 720 million birds. More than 2.5 billion of the losses come from just 12 families including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches.

Staggering numbers for specific species include dark-eyed juncos (most people call them snowbirds) down by 168 million, eastern and western meadowlarks down by a combined 139 million, white-throated sparrows down by 93 million, and red-winged blackbirds – often spotted along wet roadsides and freshwater marshes throughout the continent – have declined by 92 million.

Additional study results indicate that shorebirds were already at dangerously low numbers and have seen their populations drop by one third. The volume of the spring migrations, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14 percent in the last 10 years.

The study relied on data from 143 weather stations across the continent along with nearly 50 years of information collected through multiple monitoring efforts, including the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Breeding Bird Survey coordinated with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count and Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey.

“The story is not over,” said co-author Michael Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy. “There are so many ways to help save birds. Some require policy decisions such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save lives of millions of birds, like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors and protecting habitat.”

Other simple solutions suggested by the Cornell Lab include reducing lawn sizes by planting native species, avoiding pesticide use at home, choosing organic foods that do not depend on poisoning weeds and other perceived pests, joining efforts to collect bird data and supporting bird conservation programs.

The backyard birds are not the only coal mine canaries. Other studies have shown significant losses among insects and amphibians, important food sources for birds.

“It’s imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, because the domino effect can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods, and because people all over the world cherish birds in their own right,” said co-author Peter Marra, former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Not all the bird news is bad. Ducks and geese have seen remarkable recoveries over the last 50 years through investments in conservation by hunters and billions of dollars for funding wetland protection and restoration. The American bald eagle was nearly wiped out, but after banning the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, our national symbol has made a tremendous comeback.

“It’s a wake-up call that we have lost more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada,” said co-author Adam Smith of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Even scary stories can have happy endings, but like many others, this one requires attention and action.

John J. Winkelman is community engagement manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail ogmjohnw@aol.com and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.

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