Story at a glance
- Several bird species native to North America have suffered devastating population losses since 1970.
- The leading causes are loss of habitat and food sources, as well as invasive species.
- The problems are man-made — but solutions are too.
North America’s birds are dying. Declared a man-made epidemic by a report in Science, approximately 100 bird species are recognized as endangered or threatened, with some estimates stating that about 30 percent of North America’s bird population has disappeared over the past half century. This amounts to 3 billion birds total.
Many factors play into the declining bird population, with studies and experts reporting the top threat being habitat loss. The American Bird Conservancy lists other specific threats to birds including building collisions, pesticides, coastal disturbance and invasive species. The report notes that the majority of these issues are related to climate change.
“The global wildlife crisis has arrived in our backyards,” the president of American Bird Conservatory (ABC), Michael J. Parr, said in a press release.
This is a point that Jordan Rutter, the PR director for the ABC, echoed as well. As a lifelong birder, Rutter has seen declines in the bird population, but she was fascinated to learn about the number breakdown among different species.
She stated that migratory birds, or “backyard birds,” have suffered an approximate 30 percent loss since 1970. This means relatively common bird species like grackles, orioles and dark-eyed juncos are struggling. This surprised Rutter. “These aren’t exotic birds or birds that you have never seen before,” she says. “These are birds seen at your grandma’s house.”
Among the ranks of declining bird populations, grassland birds — a group of birds native to the Northern Great Plains — have seen an approximate 53 percent population loss over the past 50 years. Both the report and Rutter attribute this to habitat loss. “Prairies are great for agriculture and ranching and other human development,” says Rutter. The uptick in crop agriculture and development have eaten away at grassland birds’ natural home.
Increased farming and development introduce other factors contributing to avifauna population declines. One prominent component is the loss of sustenance, such as insects. Now commonly referred to as the insect apocalypse, the interruption in birds’ food source is a major cause for population disruption.
The shortage of bugs has had a noticeable impact. The aerial insectivores group, including birds like swallows and nightjars, are suffering. As their name implies, the aerial insectivores are particularly dependent on a healthy supply of insects to survive. The report states that “agricultural intensification and urbanization have been similarly linked to declines in insect diversity and biomass, with cascading impacts on birds and other consumers.” Rutter explains that this could be due to increased pesticide use on crops and other developments, but is quick to point out that this is a correlation that does not imply causation.
When asked about potential solutions for what may soon be known as “the bird apocalypse,” Rutter insists that “Whether you have a lot of money or not, there is something you can do to help birds.” She recommended retrofitting windows to reduce bird collisions with glass, keeping domesticated cats indoors and, of course, donating to conservation efforts as attainable ways to help.
While this study focused on the U.S. and Canada, similar reports confirm other countries suffer from a dwindling avian population.
“This is not an alarm sound,” Rutter insists, “but a rallying cry.”