3 billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970

Published: September 26, 2019

Migrating Swallows Photo by Shutterstock/xpixel

Have you noticed fewer birds parking themselves around the feeder at your cottage? There may be a reason for this. According to a report published in Science, there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than there were in 1970—that’s 29 per cent or almost one third of the bird population. And this isn’t just rare birds; it includes the everyday ones, too.

“Even the most common, adaptable, urban-type birds are going down, like the house sparrows and the starlings,” says Andrew Couturier, the senior director of landscape science and conservation at Bird Studies Canada.

In Canada alone, shore birds have declined by 40 per cent, grassland birds by 57 per cent, and aerial insectivores (birds that eat insects out of the air) by 59 per cent.

Couturier says it’s a complex mix of factors that has caused the decline. “It’s hard to pinpoint the smoking gun for any single species, and the reason for that, especially in Canada, is because most of our bird species are migratory.”

Eighty per cent of the birds in Canada migrate during the winter, travelling as far as the southern tip of South America. During these trips, birds encounter a number of threats, including collisions with buildings, homes, and cars. But one of the biggest threats is free-roaming cats. According to a report in Nature Communications, free roaming cats kill over a billion birds a year in the United States alone.

Habitat loss and degradation is the only mortality threat that outweighs bird-gobbling cats. “There’s just fewer places for these birds to live and raise their young. The habitats that are left in many places are fragmented. It could be full of invasive species; it could be degraded from pesticide use,” Couturier says.

He points to Vancouver’s Lower Mainland as an example. “It’s a heavily urbanized area with lots of industrial activity, but also one of the most important places on the West Coast for shore birds.” With rapid habitat loss due to the spread of urbanization, birds are being “squeezed out at both ends of their life cycle,” meaning they’re reproducing less.

If birds continue to disappear, this could have a profound impact on local ecosystems. Not only do birds help suppress invasive insect populations, but they also pollinate the food that we eat and disperse seeds, helping to regenerate forests. “We’re losing biodiversity by the day and, actually, you have to think this is going to have a real impact on us as the ecosystems become less resilient and are unable to rebound from disturbances and harmful stressors,” Couturier says. “Eventually, there’s going to be some kind of catastrophic ecosystem breakdown.”

But there is hope. Couturier cites waterfowl populations as an example. “When we protected wetlands and encouraged habitat conservation for those types of birds, we saw them rebound.” And now that the use of DDT and other toxic chemicals have been banned, the bald eagle population is also on the rise. “Where my office is right now, I can look out most days and see a bald eagle, which was not the case 20 years ago,” Couturier says.

In order to prevent the further decline of bird populations in North America, Couturier says there are a few simple steps that any ordinary citizen, including cottagers, can take. The first is to volunteer as a citizen scientist by observing and reporting on local birds you’re seeing—on the dock, from the kitchen window, at your feeder, or during migration season—to contribute to the research of organizations such as Bird Studies Canada. “None of this would be possible to even know what is going on without all of those people contributing.”

Next, “they can help to steward and lobby for important sites for birds, such as important bird and biodiversity areas,” he says. “Another thing is getting involved in municipal planning and advocating for natural areas and birds at the local level because that’s where a lot of the decisions are made about development.”

Around your home or cottage, Couturier suggests adding bird stickers to your window to prevent collisions. People can also plant “bird-friendly gardens that have native plants in them that support birds through seeds or fruits.”

Finally, Couturier stresses that people need to reduce their carbon footprint. “Climate change is kind of an overarching problem that is going to exacerbate all of these things that are already going on,” he says. This includes simple steps like turning off lights and biking or walking instead of driving.

“There are ways that people can make a positive difference.”

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