How to solve America’s bird crisis

a photo of a bird called Baltimore Oriole

I am a field naturalist and have been watching birds in the Mid-Atlantic region since the early 1960s. I read with interest the various opinion pieces that were spawned by a recent technical article published in Science magazine that warned of a net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29 percent of our avifauna, since 1970. I went back and read the Science article, to try to better understand what exactly is happening to our birdlife, and to see if there were things that we can do to address this worrisome downward trend. 

The analysis reported in the Science article is well-supported by the data and compelling. Overall, our birdlife is indeed in decline. Substantial and sustained action is needed to address this continent-wide problem. And yet the issue is complex and whereas some bird groups are declining, others are not. Therefore, any plan of action should focus  on the threatened groups, and should learn from the examples of those bird groups that are on the increase.

First, to the overall decline. The research confirms that there are substantially fewer birds inhabiting North America today than in 1970. In fact, this is no surprise to field biologists and naturalists who have been watching birds over the past five decades. The data, then, is announcing the obvious to field workers and conservationists. And yet, this is surprising  news to the 45 million people who appreciate, watch and feed birds across our continent. 

Second, this is a call to action for nonprofits, foundations and governments at all levels. We have been asleep at the wheel, ignoring the decline of our common birds. Now that we have the data and know the nature of the declines, we must step up.

Third, and what has not been sufficiently highlighted, is that the issue is complex and the declines are not across the board and unitary. In this complex story lie the roots of potential tools to address the solution to disappearing birds. 

Bright spots

Two countertrends offer hope. Both the raptors (hawks, eagles and falcons) and the waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans) have exhibited substantial increases in population since 1970. Both of these important bird groups have increased of late because of sustained human intervention on their behalf.

For many decades in the 19th and 20th century, the raptors were relentlessly persecuted by farmers and hunters. This came to an end by 1970, when “hawk watching” took the place of widespread hawk shooting. Once hunting was banned and hawk watching became a popular sub-field of birdwatching, the raptors have shown strong and steady increases, especially noticeable at important migration passage sites such as Hawk Mountain, Pa., and Cape May, N.J.

The waterfowl dropped to historic lows because of unconstrained market hunting in the early 1900s. Subsequently, populations of these game birds have rebounded thanks to  the rise of nonprofit groups such as the National Audubon Society and Ducks Unlimited, implementation of better hunting regulations, and strong federal support for conservation of waterfowl habitats through well-funded programs (e.g., The North American Wetlands Conservation Act). And it has not hurt that a historically pro-hunting Congress has been happy to invest our nation’s wealth in “hook and bullet” activities on behalf of waterfowl — hunters indeed need abundant birds to have a successful hunt.

These two examples of bird groups on the increase demonstrate that substantial, smart and sustained action on behalf of particular bird assemblages can bring them back from the brink. This instills the hope that today, it is just a matter of devising, funding and implementing targeted programs to restore the populations of those bird groups that now are suffering so grievously. Rather than despair, we need to get to work.

Solutions within reach

First, there are some obvious actions that need to be taken, which will benefit a broad swath of our birdlife. These are the low hanging fruit. We now know that cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds a year in North America. Cats make wonderful house pets but evolution has made them perfect killing machines. In the same manner that it is illegal for dogs to run wild through our landscape, cats can no longer be permitted to wander about outside, killing birds, shrews, voles and chipmunks year-round. Moreover, we also need to reduce the shameful annual mortality of birds caused by tall lighted buildings, reflective windows, wind turbines and lighted towers. As highlighted by concerned nonprofits, all of these threats have rather straightforward technical solutions. It is just a matter of state and local authorities showing the political will to help our birds. 

The particular bird groups that need our special assistance today are the grassland birds (such as grouse and sparrows), the aerial insect-feeders (such as swallows and flycatchers), the migrant woodland songbirds (such as warblers and thrushes) and the shorebirds (such as sandpipers and plovers). Each will require specific interventions to bring them back, some easier to deploy than others.

In the U.S., we need to take better care of our grasslands, some of which are in federal and state hands and some of which are held privately. Too many of these grasslands are chronically overgrazed, too many acres are devoted to rowcrop agriculture that is  saturated with too many agricultural chemicals, and our fields are no longer buffered by hedgerows and other natural habitats for our wildlife to thrive. These are issues that can be readily addressed through smart regulations and federal programs that provide strong incentives to grazers and farmers to do the right thing for our precious grasslands, farm fields, and pasturelands.

Speaking of chemicals, we also need to acknowledge the past depredations of DDT and apply much stricter federal and state control over the registration and deployment of pesticides across our landscape. Overuse of pesticides has decimated our insect populations, which has led to the sharp decline of the aerial insect-feeding birds. And certain pesticides (e.g., the neonicotinoids) are infamous bird-killers.

We need to improve the management of our forests across the Western Hemisphere. Our migrant woodland songbirds require healthy northern forests for breeding, productive  midcontinental forests for stop-over sites during spring and fall migration, and abundant tropical forests for these birds’ long winter sojourns in Central and South America. Better management of our forests in Canada, the U.S. and south of the border will be the main antidote to our declining migrant songbirds. 

The challenges threatening the shorebirds are similar to those for many of the migrant songbirds, because both have geographically complex life histories — breeding in the far north, migrating twice a year through the U.S., and wintering in the tropics and southern hemisphere. Whereas the songbirds need forests, the shorebirds require undisturbed and productive mudflats and tundra. And with the shorebirds, it appears that climate change is impacting breeding success in the wild lands of the far north. Here is one issue that requires serious global action, a tall order, indeed. 

As shown by the strong rebound of the raptors and waterfowl, conservation action does work. It is just a matter of citizens and governments acting in concert to create the conditions that will foster the return of our beloved birds. As we begin to ramp up action on the larger and more challenging issues (forest, grassland and wetland restoration; climate change), we need to move quickly on the more straightforward actions to benefit birds (legislation or regulations that address  immediate sources of annual bird mortality). If we take the steps to improve conditions for our birds, these no doubt will improve the quality of life for all other forms of life, ourselves included. Don’t we all want to live in a green and thriving world?

Bruce M. Beehler is a research associate in the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is author of twelve books, including the recent Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia and Natural Encounters: Biking, Hiking, and Birding Through the Seasons. Views expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent those of this institution.