After four days of hammering you with bad news, here are some good news graphics from the recently released bird population study that showed a decline of 2.9 billion birds, or 29 percent, in North American over the last 50 years.
Here’s another classic For the Birds column, this one originally printed in the fall of 2007. Andrew was five, Will was two, the economy was starting to unravel.
We’re losing birds daily as the days get shorter and nights get cooler. That’s the pessimistic view.
We’re gaining birds daily, too, as the days get shorter and nights get cooler. I like that one better. I try to be a glass-half-full type of guy, even as my 401k plunges into the abyss.
Fall migration is a funny thing for birdwatchers in New England. We say goodbye until next spring to some birds, such as oystercatchers, ospreys, and hummingbirds; and hello to our winter birds such as white-throated sparrows, juncos, and ducks of all shapes and sizes. In the meantime, birds that nest north of here and winter south of here will pass through like a train in no particular hurry to reach its destination.
Now is the time to concentrate on those varieties. The kinglets, warblers and vireos of the bird world. Our summer birds have been with us for months. The winter birds will be here soon and stay with us until spring. The migrants are fleeting. That’s why they’re called migrants.
Kinglets are my favorite fall migrant to watch. A tiny bird that would easily fit in the palm of your hand, kinglets are energetic little bundles of joy. We have two varieties in New England: ruby-crowned and golden-crowned. For the most part they migrate through New England at different times, but I once watched from my kitchen window a ruby-crowned and golden-crowned sharing the same hemlock branch.
Kinglets are not shy and will often hunt for tiny insects within arm’s reach of any human patient enough to stand still long and learn its hunting pattern. They hunt high in trees, along the tops of average-sized bushes and even along the ground. I once watched a ruby-crowned kinglet hunt on a sandy beach a few autumn’s past.
Warblers are the jewels of the bird world in the spring. They are colorful, spritely and somewhat easy to identify if you can get a good look at them. In the fall, they are still sought after, but often painfully confusing for birdwatchers. The males of most species, resplendent in their breeding plumage in the spring, sport feathers that are dulled by age and the toils of summer by fall. First-year birds — mere helpless naked babies a few months ago — are passing through New England in their confusing neither-here-nor-there plumage.
I had an unfortunate warbler sighting last weekend. I was walking along a long road with my five-year-old, Andrew, and two-year-old, Will. First, let me clarify the walking situation. We had just spent a wonderful, but exhausting morning/early afternoon at an Aquarium in southern New England. We had to walk a fair distance back to the car, but the kids were in no mood to walk under their own power anymore — especially if sharks and seals were not involved — so I had Will on my shoulders and Andrew in my arms. I love them to death, but they are getting heavy.
Suddenly Andrew, who was facing backwards, says, “Daddy, you just walked past a bird.” Sure enough, there on the sidewalk was a dead black-throated blue warbler. I put the kids down and examined the bird. It was perfectly intact and likely either collided with a window or simply fell exhausted from the sky. Not that I particularly enjoyed that warbler sighting, but it did serve as an educational lesson for Andrew and Will, and was a mighty handsome subject at that. (It also gave me a little break from carrying two growing boys.)
Double-crested cormorants made for another educational lesson that morning. The cormorants were alive and well, and this lesson was actually fun — at least I thought so, anyway. Cormorants are large diving water birds. When they swim pretty much only their long necks are above the water, making them look like swimming snakes. There were about a dozen of them swimming under a railroad bridge in a river. It was Andrew’s job to first find them and then count them. The game could have gone on for hours as the diving cormorants became “new” birds each time they resurfaced. He got to about 30 before the game got old and we went back into the Aquarium.
Soon, the double-crested cormorants will be gone and great cormorants will take their place along New England’s coast for the winter. Also before long, waterfowl of many varieties will arrive in New England. Some will merely pass through and some will stay all winter.
The days are going to get even shorter and the temperatures are going to get a lot colder. Those ducks, however, will help us get through the winter. They always do.
Several articles published last week confirmed what we all knew already: Birds are in decline.
What was enlightening, in a bad way, was the degree to which birds are disappearing. Citing a report from the journal Science, the articles reported that there are 2.9 billion fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada now than there were in 1979. That’s a decrease of 29 percent.
The 2.9 billion fewer birds certainly is startling. The 29 percent decline is also eye-opening, but to be honest, that number doesn’t really surprise me given the percentage decline of some species. The wood thrush, for example, has declined 62 percent from 1966 to 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Its beautiful flute-like song still echoes throughout our woods, but not nearly as often as it used to.
Other startling examples include the eastern meadowlark (89 percent decline), cerulean warbler (72 percent decline), salt marsh sparrow (75 percent decline from 1998 to 2012), and American bittern (42 percent decline).
Unfortunately, examples are easy to come by as nearly every species has declined to some degree over the last 50 years. And don’t even get me started with the birds that are on the brink of extinction, such as the Kirtland’s warbler.
According to the latest study published by Science, waterfowl and raptors are faring the best with slight population increases. That is not surprising considering the amazing recovery of species such as the osprey and bald eagle.
It is interesting to note the discrepancies between this latest study and previous studies such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Partners in Flight study. The previous studies showed stable or slightly increasing populations for many of our common birds. The latest study shows decreases even among birds such as robins and the more common sparrows. The study was conducted by a collaboration of government, nonprofit and educational organizations.
Not that it makes the 29 percent decrease in the overall bird population any better, but part of me thought that the number would be even higher.
What is the significance of this report and why should we care if birds are in decline or not? Aside from the fact that they are beautiful and fascinating creatures, and that millions of people enjoy watching them, there are serious consequences to losing birds. Birds eat insects, pollinate flowers, are a vital part of the food chain and contribute greatly to earth’s incredible biodiversity. They help keep nature in balance.
Birds are also an indicator species, those species that give a picture of the overall health of the planet. If something is wrong with the birds, something is wrong with the planet. And something is certainly wrong with the birds.
To lose nearly three billion birds in a relatively short time signals that changes need to be made. Pesticides, despite our earlier close calls with extinction due to their use, continue to plague the environment. Habitat loss continues nearly unabated and the rapidly-growing world population isn’t going to ease those pressures any time soon. The fires in the Amazon rainforest don’t help either.
Unfortunately, the list of factors in the decline of bird populations goes on and on and on. Fortunately, we have taken notice and that’s the first step toward doing something about it.