Nature Talks

Cheryl Kimball

New Study Says That Bird Numbers Are Declining Dramatically

By now, anyone who cares about birds has heard about the recent report regarding the decline of bird numbers since 1970. The headlines are indeed alarming: “North America Has Lost More Than 1 in 4 Birds in Last 50 Years, New Study Says” (National Audubon Society); “Birds Are Vanishing from North America” (The New York Times); “North America has lost 3 billion birds in 50 years” (Washington Post); “Bird Population in North America Has Plummeted in the Past 50 Years” (NPR).

The study, done by a research team consisting of institutions including the Smithsonian Conservation Institute, U.S. Geological Survey, the Canadian Wildlife Service and several others, pooled results from common citizen-scientist bird surveys (The Christmas Count, e.g.) and “analyzed the breeding population of 529 species” (audubon.org). One researcher quoted in the Audubon article said “Unfortunately for birds I think we can be very confident in these results.” Another ecologist not involved in the study said “We know birds are in decline, but this is a really sobering picture of that decline.”

I typically reserve this column for telling stories about my own personal nature observations. I care deeply about the natural world—specifically animals, and birds in particular—but I am not a scientist. As such, I try to stay in my lane. But a study such as this has to make anyone even remotely interested in birds sit up and take notice.

“Birds evolved from dinosaurs in a patchwork fashion over tens of millions of years before finally taking to the skies some 150 million years ago” (“Birds Evolved From Dinosaurs Slowly—Then Took Off” by Dan Vergano, National Geographic, 9/25/14). What makes a bird a bird? According to Vergano’s article, a plethora of things—feathers, hollow bones, a wishbone, and beaks to name key ones. An interesting view on the diversity among birds was put forth in 1944 by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said that “evolutionary novelty, flight in this case, can lead to rapid diversification among species exploiting new environmental niches.” With flight, birds could get to places no other animal could reach.

Vergano’s article quotes another paleontologist—Stephen Brisette of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland—as saying “Once the whole body plan finally came together, then something was unlocked and [birds] started evolving really fast.” Whether you believe birds were created or birds evolved, it is a clear fact that birds are remarkable animals. I doubt I need to remind anyone who regularly reads this column of that.

So back to my personal observations. I started becoming serious about birdwatching when I was in middle school, which would have been right around 1970. That means that I have had my eye on birds for the entire time that this study’s conclusion covers—1970 to now. Can I say that I have noticed this dramatic decline in bird numbers? Perhaps. But I am not sure it registered as decline in individual bird numbers.

For instance, when I first started watching birds thanks to my mother’s feeders outside my childhood home in coastal Maine, rose-breasted grosbeaks were regular customers. I saw one or two early on here where I have lived for 26 years but I now have not seen one in years. Friends who live just a few miles away from me see them fairly often, but I do not. Does that mean that while they are still in this habitat, there are not enough around to have one at both my friend’s and my feeders? On average once a year I spot a Baltimore oriole at our place. When I was a kid, we saw them all the time. I would look for their nests and marvel at the intricate little sling they built to rear their young. These are the things that originally attracted me to birdwatching—wildly diverse birds with incredible plumage building nests any skilled weaver would admire. That a great blue heron and a chickadee are both called birds is simply astonishing.

Several people have emailed me this fall asking where all the birds have gone. While we can only assume they have chosen the bounty of the forest over our feeders, which they will enjoy later, is it really that there are fewer birds?

The scientists who focus on birds were clearly surprised by the extent of the findings of this study. What about you? Had you already gotten the sense that birds are in decline? And if so, I’d be curious to know what made you feel that. Of course we cannot easily control what happens in the international habitats in which migrating birds spend their winters. But in an upcoming column, I would like to explore ways we as individuals might be able to help birds to not decline further. Suggestions?