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What to make of 3 billion birds lost?

A recent headline, first appearing in a prestigious science journal and then cascading through world media proclaimed: “Three Billion Birds Lost”. This sad estimation of the number of birds lost over a 48-year period (1970 to 2018) in the U.S. and Canada was made by a group of scientists analyzing count data from the Breeding Bird Survey. In follow-up interviews, I repeated read the responses from ornithologists and conservation biologists that included “crisis”, “ecosystem collapse”, and “shocking”.

As a professional ornithologist who has worked extensively on conservation issues, I don’t want to make light of the conclusions of this paper. Quantifying the loss of birds over the last five decades and drawing attention to declining bird populations is extremely important. The data analysis done by this team is sophisticated and appropriate, and I think their estimates are accurate. Nevertheless, I contend that the state of the birds in the U.S. and Canada might not be as dire as some headlines suggested.

Throughout nearly the entire 48-year period of the study, I’ve been looking at birds. I started birdwatching as an 11-year-old in 1971, so this loss of three billion birds transpired literally in front of my eyes. To be honest, my first response when I saw that 29% of individual birds had disappeared from the continental US and Canada was not “I can’t believe how bad this is”. Rather, my response was a more optimistic: “wow, we still have 71% of the birds that we had in 1970”. I’m not being facetious that the loss of 29% of individual birds in North America seemed to me more like good news than bad news. When I go back to Northern Kentucky, where I pursued birds as an adolescent in the early 1970s, the field where I watched Henslow’s Sparrow sing and Black-billed Cuckoos coo is a parking lot for a regional hospital—not a lot of birds left in those acres. When I go to visit my brother and his family, I drive to his house in a vast suburb that, when I was a teenage birder, was an extensive forest in a remote and hard-to-reach corner of the county. There are birds in this suburb, but only a fraction of what existed before it was developed. Where once there were pockets of development surrounded by woodland, there are now wooded parks and reserves amid an ocean of houses, highways, and strip malls. Through the last 25 years, I have watched the same transition unfold in Auburn, Alabama. And looking down from seats on commercial airlines over recent decades, I’ve watched the countryside of the entire eastern U.S. be swallowed by a more and more extensive urban blanket. It is not shocking to me that 29% of birds are no longer with us when it seems that way more than 29% of the landscape has been swallowed up by development.

Despite this stark reality that we live in a world with 3 billion fewer birds than existed just a few decades ago, the news is not all bad. As a matter of fact, from the perspective of maintaining viable populations of bird populations in the U.S. and Canada, the news is not terrible at all. There is currently not a single species of bird in the continental U.S. and Canada that is under imminent threat of extinction. All of the extremely rare species of birds in North America that were near the brink of extinction when I started birding in the 1970s, such as California Condor, Whooping Crane, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and Kirtland’s Warbler, have growing populations. In my lifetime, we have lost no bird species in the continental US or Canada (note that the Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a subspecies and not a species), except perhaps Bachman’s Warbler and that species was, for all intents and purposes, gone before I was born. I think it is counterproductive to talk in terms of a collapse of North American bird populations, as I have sometimes heard. It is clearly not true, and it may actually undercut conservation efforts.

I’m certainly not arguing that the situation for birds in North America is universally or even generally rosy. In the journal article that lead to the numerous headlines about the shocking loss of birds, the authors parse out subgroups of birds by both taxonomy and habitat to see how various subgroups are faring. When grouped by habitat, grasslands birds have shown the greatest decline, with about half of all grassland birds gone since 1970. And this decline continues to the present. We get an inkling of this decline in grassland birds in Alabama with conspicuously fewer meadowlarks and bobwhite in Alabama than a few decades ago, but the problem is compounded across plains states where a majority of breeding birds are grassland species. Unlike some other conservation issues revealed by the data, however, this is potentially a fixable problem. The major grasslands in the Great Plains support a miniscule human population. The problem for grassland birds is not suburbs, strip malls, and roads; rather, birds are declining in the great plains because of increasingly intensive agriculture, sometimes on marginal farmland. The U.S. and Canada do not need the food resources produced on marginal farmland. Changes in policies and attitudes about land use, with large areas of marginal farmland set aside as prairie reserves, could realistically reverse the downward trend in grassland birds. The fact that wetland birds have significantly increased in the U.S. and Canada since 1970 shows the power of conservation groups, like Ducks Unlimited, to stimulate continent-scale changes in land use that can have huge positive effects on bird populations.

I advocate three basic messages in encouraging the conservation of birds. First, fight to maintain and expand legislation that protects endangered species, migratory birds, and clean air and water. It is no secret why no rare birds have gone extinct in the U.S. since 1970; the Endangered Species Act led to the preservation and management of the habitat that rare species needed to recover. Second, do your part to protect the bird habitat around you. Writing letters to stop drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is important and could impact the populations of birds that migrate through Alabama, but you will have a much stronger voice and potentially do more good for birds by fighting for habitat in your own city, county, and state. Third and finally, when friends and relatives ask about bird conservation, avoid a doomsday, all-is-lost message. A message of the hopelessness of trying to save dwindling bird populations does not inspire citizens to support conservation initiatives. Instead, balance an explanation about what has been lost with the message that we have recovered disappearing species and that, with public support, we can maintain healthy populations of all bird species.


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