Birds at feeders

Bird populations, including common species like these at bird feeders in Lancaster County, have plummeted across North America by nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

The release of a study a few weeks ago that finds bird populations across North America have declined by nearly 3 billion birds since 1970 is a stomach punch.

That’s a staggering 29% reduction in less than one lifetime. One National Geographic writer called it “a state of quiet freefall.”

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.

A year ago, I wrote a column about how local birdwatchers were concerned because of the noticeable decline in such common birds as tufted titmice, chickadees, cardinals, wrens, goldfinches, house finches and bluejays at their feeders.

Now we know that they were not imagining things. The study in the journal Science parsed 50 years of annual bird surveys, many by citizen scientists as well as government counts and even radar data from weather satellites that have been used to track swarms of migrating birds at night.

The findings that one in four birds have disappeared in the last half-century are unmistakable, alarming and a call for action. Some 90% of the total loss falls in 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, larks and finches.

“We’re not keeping common species common,” lamented Pete Marra, a study co-author.

Aside from giving us pleasure to listen to or watch, birds are important cogs in seed dispersal, pollination and keeping insects in check.

The inescapable conclusion that we are causing fundamental collapses in Earth’s wildlife should be a wakeup call to governments and individuals alike.

“The global wildlife crisis has arrived in our backyards,” said Michael J. Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy and one of the study’s authors. “This is the clearest evidence yet that we are gradually and inexorably altering Earth’s ecosystems and their ability to support life.”

Grassland birds showed the most alarming declines. Waterfowl and wetlands birds were among the few species that increased because there have long been dedicated programs, paid for by hunters mostly, to preserve their nesting waters and habitat. Birds of prey numbers also increased.

So what is causing the collapse? The study didn’t get into that, but scientists and local birdwatchers list plenty of contributing stresses converging at once.

The main culprit is habitat loss and degradation. Other factors cited, in no particular order, are feral cats and pet cats irresponsibly allowed outside where they kill huge numbers of birds, window strikes, collisions with lighted buildings, climate change, contacts with invasive species of other birds, wind turbine mortality, cell tower strikes, clean farming practices, population growth, West Nile virus, disrupted migratory patterns and pesticides that can directly kill birds or the insects they rely on for food.

“I was not shocked by the numbers,” said Aaron Haines, an associate professor of conservation biology at Millersville University. Here in Lancaster County, he points to ever-growing suburbia and the habitat fragmentation it causes.

“Fragmented habitats make many birds more susceptible to predation, parasites, disease and changes in climate. Habitat space and complexity is the key to provide bird species the resources they need to survive.”

Dan Ardia, who has done bird studies as a professor of biology at Franklin & Marshall College, knew bird populations were declining but still found the scale in the study shocking.

“It is a sad time for wild populations of the animals we love,” he said. “Amphibian populations have been in free fall for decades. Now, add birds to the list of biodiversity that we once experienced and appreciated, but that might not be around in the long term.”

Like others, Ardia points to loss and degradation of quality habitat for birds. He also singles out increased mortality from cats, building strikes and wind turbines. “The most frustrating aspect to me is that many of these impacts can be minimized if there was public will, especially as it relates to cats and to reducing evening lighting in buildings.”

Bob Schutsky, a retired biologist and former birding company owner from Peach Bottom, found the numbers of birds that have disappeared in his lifetime “humbling. That’s a big number. It’s hard for me to comprehend that.”

What can you do to help birds?

Doctor your yard to provide the essentials of food and water. Lawns make up 40 million acres across the United States. Put out a bird bath. You can get heated ones that will provide water through the winter. Plant native trees, shrubs and flowers that provide seeds and berries favored by birds. Dogwood, crabapple, winterberry, holly and hawthorn are but a few that produce berries. Put out bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders.

Here are a few how-to links for increasing bird habitat in your yard: audubon.org/news/grow-these-native-plants-so-your-backyard-birds-can-feast; nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/Wildlife/Attracting-Birds; audubon.org/news/to-help-birds-winter-go-easy-fall-yard-work.

Don’t let your cat outdoors!

Also, urge your members of Congress to support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, 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.

Bruce Carl, a longtime birdwatcher and bird surveyor from Akron, is discouraged by the news of plummeting bird species. I asked him about the disappearing sounds of birdsong outdoors.

“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,” he replied. “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. Hoping that day never happens.”

Ad Crable is an LNP outdoors writer. Email him at acrable@lnpnews.com.