Volume 27 Issue 2, Spring 2022
by Joe Coleman, Birding Coordinator
Birds have fascinated people for millennia. Not only can they fly, they are also beautiful and vary enormously. Some, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, are tiny and weigh less than a dime but fly across the Gulf of Mexico. Even the largest and most magnificent birds don’t weigh much because feathers are light and their bones are hollow. The Bald Eagle, that beautiful, soaring bird of prey, only weighs a little more than nine pounds but flies with grace and strength in the strongest winds. There are also a lot more birds than there are mammals and they are, for the most part, easier to see and relatively easy to tell apart.
Birds are also excellent indicators of how healthy the world around us is. The longest and largest citizen science project in the world is the annual Christmas Bird Count. Begun in 1900 to encourage people to count birds rather than shoot them, today more than 80,000 people participate in over 2,000 counts in North America, as well as many others in other locations.
And since the Christmas Bird Count began, numerous other types of counts have begun because of people’s interest in and love of birds. More than 50 years ago, people began to participate in Breeding Bird Surveys, following strict scientific criteria and getting an excellent snapshot of the state of breeding birds in the U.S. Even local counties added to the research on birds by doing atlases of the bird species in their jurisdictions. From 2009 through 2014, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy compiled an atlas of all the wild birds in Loudoun County year-round. Researchers have found that birds don’t just need healthy nesting and wintering territories, but are also dependent on the places they stop along their long and exhausting migratory routes. The Loudoun Atlas counted not only breeding birds in every nook and cranny that people could get to throughout the county, it included every wild bird seen here throughout the year. This data revealed the most important places in the county for protecting breeding birds, and also where birds regularly stop over.
In September 2019 the journal Science published an article that shocked the world. The paper was the result of work from leading bird researchers with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Canadian National Wildlife Centre, and others. Using data from the Christmas Bird Counts, over 50 years of Breeding Bird Surveys, and numerous other studies, they found that bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30%, or 3.2 billion birds, over the past 50 years.
The biggest declines occurred in the east in 12 families of birds, including sparrows, warblers, and finches. Shorebird numbers were also found to have declined significantly, but the group experiencing the worst declines were grassland birds. Even introduced species, such as starlings and house sparrows, have seen their populations decline, with the latter dropping by about 80% in that time.
What gave many of us a glimmer of hope in the research was that some species are doing well. This was especially true for species that people have passed specific laws to protect or that others have spent a lot of money to preserve. Birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, have bounced back from precipitous declines in the middle of the last century that occurred because of persecution and pesticide contamination. Prior to the banning of DDT many birds of prey couldn’t sit on their eggs without causing them to break; fortunately, that is no longer the case. Waterfowl have done especially well, not just because of laws protecting wetlands but because of large hunting constituencies that ensure there are enough places for ducks to nest and overwinter. When we want to, we can make a difference!
Many major problems still exist. Just as climate change is causing more frequent and stronger bad weather, it is causing a lot of problems among many bird species. Many springtime migrants have evolved to time their migration to coincide with insect hatch-outs which are based on when vegetation blooms. As many of us know, plants are bursting into flower much earlier than they used to, but birds are far behind in adapting to these changes, showing up a week or two after the trees and flowers have quit blooming — and not finding enough food to survive, let alone raise a family.
Urban and suburban lights are also a major issue. If you look at any night photos of the East Coast, it is incredibly lit up. Our skies are so badly polluted by light that the Milky Way is no longer visible to most people in the U.S. Because many birds migrate at night when they can navigate by the stars and avoid predators, light pollution on this scale is a major problem. There is extensive documentation that lighted skyscrapers are a major killer of birds during migration, but even suburban lighting can cause extensive problems to migrating birds. As a result, numerous campaigns have been waged to get building managers to turn off their lights during the peak of migration. While many cities have responded to these campaigns, it is obvious that much more needs to be done. To increase awareness of this problem, the focus of this year’s World Migratory Bird Day on May 14 is the impact of light pollution on birds and a request for people to “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night.”
While the state of birds is serious, there are many things we can do. Helping count birds is one of them. And from there we can identify what actions are needed to reverse that trend of declining bird populations, and then ensure that those actions are followed through.