Sunday, 20 October, 2019


The disappearing birds of North America

A capped Chickadee in New York's Central Park on Oct. 15 2016. The New York Times A capped Chickadee in New York's Central Park on Oct. 15 2016. The New York Times
Bennie Garza | 21 September, 2019, 23:14

The study says people are to blame.

A comprehensive study shows there are almost 3 billion fewer wild birds in North America than in 1970. It was banned for agricultural use in 1972, and laws that protected the birds of prey allowed them to recover. Those efforts showed persistent declines in bird populations.

Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet, Rosenberg said. Shorebirds have also lost one-third of their population, and grassland birds lost more than 720 million, resulting in a 53% population reduction.

And because birds are monitored so well, the researchers fear that this may "represent the tip of the iceberg, indicating similar or greater losses" in other animal groups, according to the study. "We're certainly far from having the tools and having the resources to have real high confidence in our estimates of these populations".

The researchers documented a steep decline for migratory birds.

A team of researchers from universities, government agencies and non-profit organisations collaborated on the new study, which combined old and new methods for counting birds.

Marra says these losses are a warning for humans.

The study stated "Species extinctions have defined the global biodiversity crisis, but extinction begins with loss in abundance of individuals that can result in compositional and functional changes of ecosystems". "I really hope this can be a wake-up call". "But we know of lots of examples where sustainable agriculture systems can produce the food we need".

An earlier version of this story misspelled Kristen Ruegg's first name as Kristin. The scientists relied in large part on information gathered through the North American Breeding Birds Survey, a longstanding partnership between scientists and amateur bird watchers.

Despite the decline, Marra says there's still a chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rosenberg works at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For decades, professional ornithologists have been assisted by an army of devoted amateur bird-watchers who submit their observations to databases and help carry out surveys of bird populations each year. So he wondered how the total number of birds in the sky might be changing.

"It's not just these highly threatened birds that we're afraid are going to go on the endangered species list", he said. They also used data from weather radar installations that can detect flocks of migrating birds. 3 billion birds lost over those 50 years.

Some are "seed dispersers" - they eat seeds from tree fruits and then spread them across wide areas through defecation, helping create new trees; when they're not around, "seed predators", such as rodents, consume seeds from fallen fruits but crack them open, rendering them unable to grow, said Sekercioglu, who has studied birds' roles in ecosystems. But the victims include warblers, thrushes, swallows and other familiar birds.

ROSENBERG: Things like meadowlarks, dark-eyed junco, horned lark, red-winged blackbird.

The study, published today in the journal Science, did not analyze the reason for the drop.

"Every field you lose, you lose the birds from that field", he said.

TED SIMONS: We're certainly far from having the tools and having the resources to have real high confidence in our estimates of these populations. "There's always uncertainty, but if they are wrong, they are likely underestimating the magnitude of population declines". Rosenberg, of Cornell University, is lead author of the study.

KRISTEN RUEGG: Overall, the conclusions weren't necessarily surprising.

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