Declining Bird Populations Offer ‘Wake-Up Call’

In my backyard, the feeders are full. A downy woodpecker sits perched on the suet feeder.
Photograph of bird courtesy iStock.

In my backyard, the feeders are full. A downy woodpecker sits perched on the suet feeder. A pair of cardinals wait cautiously in the nearby pines for the mayhem to subside. Two nuthatches fly in to grab a sunflower seed and beat a hasty retreat. Meanwhile, a flock of sparrows mob the feeders and what’s left of the lawn beneath where two squirrels stuff their faces with the sunflower seeds thrown off the feeders above.

Were this my first bird feeding frenzy, I might think all is well in bird land. I live in the city, after all. But it’s not, and I know, so I noticed the absence of the dark-eyed juncos that frequented my yard for years. I’m aware that I no longer see American goldfinches, the occasional rose-breasted grosbeak or the purple finches that once fed here.

Headlines across the country last September reported the results of a new study in the journal Science about bird populations in steep decline. The findings of an international team of researchers, written by lead author Ken Rosenberg, a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy, showed that 29%, about 3 billion birds, have vanished from North America and Canada during the last 50 years.

Researchers, who analyzed 529 bird species, say habitat loss likely is the driving force behind the declines. They are calling the findings “a wake-up call.” It isn’t just threatened species that have vanished. Most are common birds like red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, warblers, finches and swallows. 

When we first moved here, I’d sit in my bay window and see 13 warbler species per hour. Now if I see three species a month, that’s a lot,” said Kay Charter, executive director for the Omena-based nonprofit Saving Birds Thru Habitat ( Charter and her late husband bought their 45-acre property and developed Charter Sanctuary, a place for birds where she continues to give educational tours about the importance of habitat and the other issues that impact bird populations like pesticide use in agriculture, gardens and yards, predation by outdoor cats, light pollution and bird collisions with glass buildings. “We are on a path to losing our birds if we don’t get on board and fix the problem,” Charter said.

Researchers found that some bird species are doing well. Waterfowl numbers (ducks, geese and swans) were up 50%, while raptors like eagles and hawks were up 200%. Wild turkey numbers were up 200%. Each has had the benefit of focused conservation work, whether protecting the eagle by listing it as endangered and banning the pesticide DDT or protecting and improving wetlands for waterfowl using funds generated by selling duck stamps to hunters.

“It’s a wake-up call that we’ve lost more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada,” said study co-author Adam Smith from Environment and Climate Change Canada, in a press announcement, one of five organizations behind the study, including The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and American Bird Conservancy.

To learn more about the study findings, visit 

Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

Five things you can do at home to help birds

1. Make windows safer, day and night: Up to 1 billion birds are estimated to die each year after hitting windows in the United States and Canada. On the outside of the window, install screens or break up reflections — using film, paint, Acopian BirdSavers or other string spaced no more than 2 inches high or 4 inches wide.

2. Keep cats indoors: Cats are estimated to kill more than 2.6 billion birds annually in the U.S. and Canada. This is the No. 1 human-caused reason for the loss of birds, aside from habitat loss.

3. Reduce lawn, plant natives: Birds have fewer places to safely rest during migration and to raise their young; more than 10 million acres of land in the United States were converted to developed land from 1982-97. With more than 40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. alone, there’s huge potential to support wildlife by replacing lawns with native plantings.

4. Avoid pesticides: Pesticides that are toxic to birds can harm them directly through contact, or if they eat contaminated seeds or prey. Pesticides also can harm birds indirectly by reducing the number of available insects, which birds need to survive.

5. Drink coffee that’s good for birds: Three-quarters of the world’s coffee farms grow their plants in the sun, destroying forests that birds and other wildlife need for food and shelter. Sun-grown coffee also often requires using environmentally harmful pesticides and fertilizers. On the other hand, shade-grown coffee preserves a forest canopy that helps migratory birds survive the winter.

Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

*Photography courtesy istock

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