Where have the wild birds gone? 3 billion fewer than 1970

A western meadowlark is shown in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado. According to a study released on Thursday, North America’s skies are lonelier and quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970. Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet. The population of eastern meadowlarks has shriveled by more than three-quarters with the western meadowlark nearly as hard hit. David Zalubowski/Associated Press file

A credible scientific analysis shows that the North American wild bird population has dropped by nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

That’s billion. With a B.

As one scientist interviewed by The Los Angeles Times put it, the statistic and its implications are “dizzying.”

American and Canadian bird experts led by Kenneth Rosenberg of Cornell University and American Bird Conservancy based the frightening estimate on a new analysis of a dozen bird survey data sets that covered 529 species and data from radar, which often catch migrating birds on their nighttime routes.

Skeptical? Go ahead and discount the estimate by a billion. Cut it in half. Feel any more secure about the condition of the world?

To state the obvious, the reported 29% decline is bad for birds and just about every other species, including us.

Birds control pests, pollinate flowers, disperse seeds, provide food for other animals and contribute to natural beauty. In short, fewer birds means more bugs, less natural food, less wildlife and an uglier, sicker world.

The paper doesn’t cite a cause for the loss of birds, although the answer is almost certainly a combination of elements. Other scientists have suggested likely culprits include habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and agricultural intensification and expansion.

History suggests two possible scenarios. Once so abundant that flocks could darken the midday sky on a cloudless day, passenger pigeons were hunted into extinction by 1914. On the other hand, raptors such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons have largely rebounded from the edge of elimination after the pesticide DDT was banned for agricultural use in 1972. Meanwhile, the efforts of hunters and conservationists have meant wetland birds, such as ducks and geese, have increased in numbers while other avian species have fallen sharply.

We can do something about this, if we have the will.

We are approaching a “Silent Spring” moment. Will we as a species do the difficult things to save the birds, or will we continue to live as if our ecology-destroying lifestyles have no consequences until it is too late?


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