Cardinal on bird feeder

The northern cardinal is one of the most frequent birds at backyard bird feeders in Lancaster County.


“North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists,” Elizabeth Pennisi wrote for the journal Science on Sept. 19. Researchers have determined that, since the 1970s, our continent has lost 3 billion birds — nearly 30% of its overall population. The researchers “projected population data using weather radar, 13 different bird surveys going back to 1970 and computer modeling to come up with trends for 529 species of North American birds,” according to an article by The Associated Press that appeared in the Sept. 20 edition of LNP.

Cornell University conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg called the bird drop-off “staggering.”

“The global wildlife crisis has arrived in our backyards,” said Michael J. Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy.

And our own Ad Crable called the news “a stomach punch” in a front-page column for last weekend’s Sunday LNP.

They’re all correct.

At a time when we should hardly need more wake-up calls about our environment, this study in Science should absolutely get us to sit up and take notice.

Why does it matter if bird populations are decreasing? Humans benefit from birds in myriad ways, including pest control, plant pollination and the spreading of seeds, according to BirdLife International.

So it matters greatly that our continent’s bird population has dropped from 10.1 billion to about 7.2 billion in a half-century.

“Three billion of our neighbors, the ones who eat the bugs that destroy our food plants and carry diseases like equine encephalitis, are gone,” University of Connecticut ornithologist Margaret Rubega said in the AP article. “I think we all ought to think that’s threatening.”

Adds LNP’s Crable: “And we’re not talking about just rare or threatened species here. Common backyard birds that Lancaster County residents have long attracted to bird feeders are showing up less and less because there are fewer of them.”

As for the causes of this decline, there’s not just one. And this is not a crisis that’s entirely driven by climate change. (That’s good, in a sense.)

The Science study cites habitat loss, pesticides and cats as contributing to the bird population decline. Windows — which kill hundreds of millions of birds per year in the U.S. — are also an increasing factor, as are wind turbines, cell towers and West Nile virus.

“Some of the causes may be subtle. (Recently), toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids — a common pesticide — made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing,” Pennisi reported for Science.

What we can do

There are reasons to be hopeful, though. Some of the issues facing the bird population are things we can control.

“We can reverse that trend,” Sara Hallager, bird curator at the Smithsonian Institution, told the AP. “We can turn the tide.”

Crable, in his Sunday LNP column, offered these tips on how Lancaster County residents can modify their yards and landscapes to provide the essentials that birds need to thrive:

— Put out a bird bath. Heated ones will provide water throughout the winter.

— Plant native trees, shrubs and flowers that provide seeds and berries favored by birds. Dogwood, crabapple, winterberry, holly and hawthorn are a few that produce berries.

— Put out multiple bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders.

And last, but certainly not least, don’t let your cats outdoors. A 2015 study found that cats kill 2.6 billion birds each year in the U.S. and Canada. We should keep our cats out of that deadly equation.

We’d like to further emphasize a point about lawns, which make up about 40 million acres in our country. In a May article for the online environmental website Grist, Eric Holthaus noted that lawns are the No. 1 irrigated “crop” in America (more than corn, wheat and fruit orchards combined) and that they are, frankly, “awful for the planet.”

But there are win-win ways to move away from having so much traditional lawn space and, at the same time, provide great help to the struggling bird population.

“A lawn filled with native plants provides habitat for animals, from insects to birds and everything in between,” Holthaus writes.

Finally, Crable makes the point that we should urge Congress to support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (HR 3742), “a bill reintroduced this summer that would dedicate just under $1.4 billion in annual funding for conservation of declining fish and wildlife species, including birds, among each state.”

We think that would be a wise expenditure with a long-term benefit.

For so many reasons, we don’t want to see North America’s bird population continue to fall. The drop-off is a reflection of all the things we do — not always intentionally — to degrade our environment.

Bruce Carl, a longtime birdwatcher and bird surveyor from Akron, spoke with Crable about what birds mean to him.

“When I started birding with members of the Lancaster County Bird Club in the late 1980s, hearing their sounds is what attracted me most to this hobby called birdwatching,” Carl said. “To walk along a trail in the woods and have it be consistently silent no matter where you would go would be very disappointing. I just can’t imagine a time when this would be possible.

“(I’m) hoping that day never happens.”

So are we. For ourselves, and for future generations.