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.


Bird population fodder V (some good news finally)


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 my recent article on it.

The study’s accompanying website is



Bird population decline fodder II


Here are some more 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 my recent article on it.

The study’s accompanying website is



Bird population decline fodder


Here are some 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 my recent article on it.

The study’s accompanying website is


 Note: This graph has been updated to reflect the technical image from the  Science  paper.

Classic For the Birds: Neither summer nor winter

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.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches in a tree at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods on May 5, 2014.

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.