For the Birds: Decline is worrisome, no matter what

Photo by Chris Bosak A European Starling in winter plumage perches on an old sunflower stalk, Dec. 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A European Starling in winter plumage perches on an old sunflower stalk, Dec. 2014.

The study released two weeks ago by the journal Science is worth another look.

As you recall from last week’s column, a collaboration of top bird and conservation organizations performed perhaps the most exhaustive study of the North American bird population and released the results two weeks ago.

The study, which reported a decline in the bird population of 29 percent or nearly three billion birds over the last 50 years, garnered significant attention in the media and science arena. The attention is well deserved as the results are quite shocking and put a number on the decline of birds, which we all knew was happening to some degree.

Most of the immediate media attention focused on the precipitous drop in bird populations and echoed the report’s call for significant action to be taken before it’s too late. That call to action is certainly appropriate and the report most definitely is a wake-up call to everybody on the planet. Some analysts, however, upon taking a deeper dive into the report’s number, see it as not the doomsday scenario that many are painting it to be. They acknowledge, for sure, that it is a big problem and steps should be taken to reverse the trend, but they say mass extinction is not imminent.

According to an article published by, a nonprofit organization that explores the “intersection of science and society,” the numbers inside the numbers show where much of the decline comes from. Citing a blog post by University of Maine macro-ecologist Brian McGill, the article states that a significant portion of the decline comes from invasive species. House sparrows and European starlings account for 15 percent of the net loss of birds.

On the other hand, if highly adaptable birds such as house sparrows and starlings are declining so much, then something is wrong.

Other sources in the story point out that most of the top 40 declining species are very abundant and an extinction is not around the corner. Taking the top 40 declining species out of the picture, more bird species are increasing rather than decreasing.

To me, the loss of three billion birds is significant regardless of the particulars. Look at it this way, if we’ve lost 29 percent of our birds, then instead of seeing 100 birds a day, we’d see 71 birds. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but paints a picture of how dramatic the decline is.

The research team, including the American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Institute, U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service, launched the website after releasing the study. The site includes text, graphics and videos to augment the media coverage the report has already received. It also includes steps you can take at home to help save birds.

I’ll take a look at those steps in next week’s column. In the meantime (warning: spoiler alert), keep kitty inside and don’t spray your plants.

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