Michael Parr, AMERICAN BIRD CONSERVANCY
You probably see birds frequently — so much so that they may seem to be everywhere. The reality, of course, is that our subjective experience only goes so far. On Thursday, researchers released a large-scale study that shows that bird populations in North America are undergoing massive and unsustainable declines — even species that experts previously thought were adapting to human-modified landscapes.
Three billion is an unimaginably large number. But that’s the number of birds that have been lost from North America since 1970. It is more than a quarter of the total bird population of the continent. While some species have increased, those that are doing better are massively outweighed by the losers. Among the worst-hit bird groups are insect-eating birds such as swifts and swallows, grassland birds like meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows and the longest-distance migrants such as cerulean warblers and wood thrushes.
Birds are a critical part of the natural food chain, and this loss of birds represents a loss of ecological integrity that, along with climate change, suggests that nature as we know it is beginning to die.
This is a genuine crisis, yet there is still time to turn it around. We know what the problems are, and we know the actions needed to affect change. Alongside strong migratory bird, clean water and endangered species legislation, and critically important work to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts, maintaining habitat is paramount.
In fact, the single greatest cause of these bird declines has been the loss and degradation of high-quality habitat. Habitat loss can seem like “death by a thousand cuts,” but some cuts go deeper than others, and some are more easily healed. The condition of American public lands is based on a collective decision — and we as a nation must decide between an emphasis on exploitative and extractive uses or nature-based and recreational uses. By better managing public lands, we can do a lot to help birds, particularly grassland and sagebrush species such as the western meadowlark and greater sage-grouse, and birds found in fire-dependent forests in the West such as black-backed and white-headed woodpeckers. Policies benefiting these and other birds will help restore nature as a whole.