“Ethereal Minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!” This opening line to William Wordsworth’s Ode to a Skylark captures some of the fascination that people since antiquity have had with birds, a reason that today, birding is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities. Birds are also the best studied of all wildlife species, so it was a shock to read a recent Science report documenting the loss of 2.9 billion birds in North America since 1970. That’s more than 1 in 4 birds lost in less than a single human lifetime. For grassland birds in particular, it’s more than 1 in 2 now gone. A most silent spring indeed. Unlike the loss of the passenger pigeon a century ago, these losses have occurred across the spectrum of species in every habitat from arctic to tropic. And yes, we humans are largely to blame—death of species by a thousand cuts: homelands lost to agriculture, cattle and urbanization, over 100 million cats, manicured lawns, pesticides, blinding night lights, plastic litter and more. The list is nearly endless. Even our coffee drinking habits and palm oil use hurt bird populations.
And the good news? Because we’ve curbed some pesticides, North American raptor populations are actually higher over this same span of time (up 15 million). Because we’ve invested in wetland regeneration, waterfowl numbers are also up (35 million). The pattern is clear: when we take action, birds recover.
What we can do:
- Plant native plants in our gardens. Reduce the use of pesticides. Keep cats indoors.
- Learn about shade-grown coffee’s importance to migratory bird populations, and let our shopping follow our values.
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website to learn more.
- Come hear Dr. Peter Marra at this Sunday’s Adult Forum talk about what we’ve learned and how science can inform good policy to bring about change.