“The skies are emptying out.” So began a report in The New York Times last month.
The Times was writing about a new study on the bird population of the United States and Canada. It found that bird numbers are down nearly three billion over the past 50 years. That is a drop of 29 per cent. It is a staggering loss and it has happened in less than an ordinary human lifetime -- a mere blink in the life of the planet.
We know about the scale of the die-off because people are fascinated by birds. Thousands of volunteers head out into the woods and fields with their binoculars for annual surveys such as the Christmas bird count. So we have data going back decades. Scientists combined these results with the images collected by 143 weather radars. Along with detecting rain clouds, the radar picks up the millions of birds that migrate seasonally through the skies, invisible to most of us as they fly high above, often at night.
What the scientists found surprised even those who have studied the decline of various bird species over time. The lead author of the report, which appeared in the journal Science, said he was “stunned.”
It isn’t just exotic, rare birds that are disappearing. Many common species are way down, too. The number of blue jays has fallen: There are eight for every 10 there would have been in 1970. The figure for the Baltimore Oriole, the brilliant orange bird that sings from the tops of trees, is six out of ten. There are 92 million fewer red-winged blackbirds.
The news isn’t all bleak. Some species have thrived. Waterfowl such as ducks and geese are coming back, thanks in part to the efforts of conservation groups to protect and recreate wetlands. The ban on the insecticide DDT allowed threatened raptors such as the bald eagle to rebound, averting what the author Rachel Carson called a Silent Spring.
But other species have gone into a frightening plunge. Seven out of 10 meadowlarks have disappeared, along with the grasslands where they live. Warblers, the family of tiny, flitting birds that are a favourite of birdwatchers, are down by more than 600 million. That is a tragedy for more than just twitchers in Tilley hats. Birds spread seeds, pollinate flowers and keep insect populations in check. They are a gauge of the health of the environment -- canaries in the mine, you might say. If they are in trouble, we all are.
What can be done? It’s a big problem, with complex roots. Many of “our” birds spend at least part of the year in the tropical south. Deforestation there threatens those species. The solutions lie mainly with governments. Only they have the power to make the laws and spend the money that might save birds from further decline.
But individuals can make little changes that help. They can keep their cats indoors, for one. One 2013 study said cats kill 200 million birds a year in Canada. The problem is biggest in populous cities such as Toronto, with hordes of cats and waves of migrating birds. Toronto happens to stand on two major migratory flyways.
They can mark their windows to prevent bird collisions -- and press their employers to do the same at the office buildings where they work. City hall has guides on how to make building glass and lighting bird-friendly.
One admirable organization called FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) collects the dead and injured birds that are found littered around office towers after they strike the glass. It is doing its rounds now, as songbirds from our northern forests fly south for the winter. This week it posted pictures of some of the birds it found alive: A dark-eyed junco, a white-throated sparrow, a bay-breasted warbler, all of them tiny creatures that can rest, trembling, in the palm of a human hand. One day FLAP exulted on Twitter: “We have had 14 total live rescues this morning!”
A small thing against a number like three billion, perhaps, but it’s a start.