May 14 is when bird lovers around the world will get outdoors to count. It’s also World Migratory Bird Day, for which this year’s theme is reducing night time light pollution. The first of these efforts, the bird count, is organized in the United States by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology with its website ebird.org/globalbigday. It is a global citizen science project to gather data on how birds are faring, and how they may be adapting to factors such as climate change.
Agricultural intensification, pollution, habitat destruction, insecticides, urbanization and climate change are all driving declines in bird populations, according to reports in New Scientist. Since the 1970s, 2.9 billion birds have been lost in North America alone, or 29 percent of the total population.
That data were assembled by the Cornell team and Canada’s National Wildlife Research Center.
“With three billion birds lost in North America since 1970, we are in a bird emergency —and we know that if they are in trouble, so are we,” said Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president for conservation policy, National Audubon Society. “The priority species identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service provide a common playbook for federal, state and tribal leaders as well as many other stakeholders to align their conservation investments. We will all need to work together in order to bring birds back and with them the lands and waters we all need to thrive.”
The Cornell study found that population decline was not limited to a few species but a wide range of species across every biome. Population loss in each biome ranged from grassland bird populations suffering the greatest loss at 53 percent to eastern forest birds with the lowest loss at 17 percent.
Researchers also found that common birds from just 12 families, such as blackbirds, sparrows and finches, account for over 90 percent —or over 2.5 billion birds— of total population decline.
Other research indicates that the Piñon Jay has suffered an 80 percent decline over the last five decades.
Experts believe that habitat loss due to agricultural development and intensification is most likely the driving factor.
Readers can also help protect birds by taking a simple actions such as installing window screens or eliminating window reflections with film or paint. A 2014 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Smithsonian study found that between 365 million and one billion birds die each year across the United States as a result of window strikes. I
Another way, if you’re a cat owner, is to keep the family cat from roaming freely outside. The U.S North American Bird Conservation Initiative has estimated that our household cats kill some 2.6 billion birds annually in this country.
In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the Birds of Conservation Concern Report, the first update published since 2008. The list includes 269 bird species, none of which are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. By publishing this report, the USFWS aimed to set priorities and spur cooperative efforts to avoid the need for an endangered listing.
“All of the birds in this report are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which underscores the importance of the administration’s effort to reinstate longstanding protections under the law and drive proactive conservation before birds become endangered or threatened,” said Erik Schneider, policy manager, National Audubon Society. “Restoring and strengthening the MBTA is a key step, but we need a suite of legislative and administrative actions that can lay a foundation for more successful, collaborative conservation efforts across the board whether public or private.”
The National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, and several other groups have drafted a policy agenda that lists the kinds of actions needed. They include:
- Reinstate and strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through administrative and legislative action.
- Increase funding and coordination for federal and state wildlife agencies to address the needs of vulnerable species and landscapes they manage.
- Revitalize and enhance the framework for national and international conservation of migratory birds through a suite of actions to improve coordination, planning, partnerships, monitoring, research and more.
“Birds are an indicator of the threats we face, and the birds included in this report in particular will tell us over time if threats continue to worsen or if conservation actions are working,” said Chad Wilsey, chief scientist with the National Audubon Society. “Many of the birds identified in this report are facing the same threats as people, like drought, extreme weather and habitat degradation on land or at sea.”
Cornell’s 2021 global ebird count revealed that Peru ranked number 1 for the most bird species observed: 1,361. The next two countries, Columbia and Ecuador with 1,233 and 1,130 respectively, also include Amazonian, Andean and coastal habitats.
The United States ranked 10th with 727 bird species.