Oct 20, 2019
by Vesta Copestakes
Recently, Kenneth Rosenberg (et al) published a comprehensive study in Science, documenting the decline of North American breeding birds over the last 50 years. The gist of the article was that the number of breeding birds in the United States and Canada has diminished by nearly 30% since 1970. This amounts to there being about 2.9 million birds less than there were fifty years ago. We can calculate the populations of birds fairly accurately relative to other groups of animals because they are the easiest to observe. The information was gathered and compiled through many scientific studies, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys and through tracking migrating birds with radar over the years. The story was picked up by Living Bird Magazine and subsequently by several other magazines and newspapers. This dramatic and distressing news gained a lot of public attention.
Many people have come up to me and asked me if I was aware of the news of the drastic decline in bird numbers. I was probably one of the last people to read about the study. But, as someone who has been watching birds for decades, I can say that I truly sensed the loss over the years.
When we think of species declining, we often think of rare species, like California Condors, or Spotted Owls. But, this study points out that many common species are losing ground in their struggle to exist. Two familiar birds which have declined are the Dark-eyed Junco and the Barn Swallow. Juncos are a cute sparrow that comes to feeders. They mostly stay on the ground below the feeders, picking up seeds that have fallen. Barn swallows are aerial insect-eaters which build mud nests on buildings and bridges. They swoop and flit powerfully and gracefully over meadows and marshes capturing and eating insects in flight. Since the numbers of insects are also declining, this leaves less food for the swallows. Since 1970, one in three Juncos and one in four Barn Swallows have disappeared.
There is some good news, however. Waterfowl numbers are on the increase, thanks to wetland management partially funded by the Duck Stamps program. Also, raptors have increased over the last 50 years. This is mainly due to outlawing DDT that took a massive toll on birds like the Peregrine Falcon and Osprey in the 1970s. This shows that when we value something, we make efforts to save and conserve it. So, if we value our smaller, commoner birds, we will do things to try and conserve them. This gives us hope.
There are many things we can do to help conserve birds. But, I am just going to mention one thing here. Keep our pet cats indoors. I love cats. I love their spirit of independence and their hysterical antics. But, they are not part of the natural ecosystems and they kill small birds, like juncos. Juncos habit of feeding on the ground makes them particularly vulnerable to cats. According to the American Bird Conservancy, outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds a year. Keeping cats indoors is also good for their own safety. Outdoor cats find lots of ways to get injured. They get in fights with other cats, find poisons in trash, or get hit by traffic. If you have the space, a good solution might be to build a “catio.”
We still have a wide diversity of birds in a wide diversity of habitats in California. And there are things that we can do as individuals and as communities to help conserve what we have. So, there is still hope. So, let’s “embrace what we value” and protect our wild birds while keeping our pets safe
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