Dramatic wild bird declines make unfortunate national headlines

Bald eagles are common but still cool and an example of how we can get conservation right. (Photos by Sharon Stiteler)

I had a conversation with a twenty-something the other day that started with her asking, “Can you tell me anything interesting about bald eagles and why people think they are so great?”

I explained the standard eagle talking points: They weigh eight to 10 pounds, it takes them five years to get the white head and tail, and that the oldest known bald eagle in the wild lived to be more 38 years old. I mentioned all the times I’ve found them in dumps scavenging food. She didn’t see why eagles were the national symbol, “They’re everywhere and so common. They’re not even the biggest bird.”

Bald eagles are a bit of a running joke with my birding friends. It never fails that if we are looking at a rare sparrow or migrating ducks someone will very helpfully approach us and ask, “Did you see the eagle?” When a birding friend tells me they got that rare Cassin’s sparrow in Duluth, I will ask, “Yeah, but did you see the eagle?”

Bald eagles are big, obvious, and easy to see. They are the national symbol for the United States. These gigantic creatures now live in urban areas. Those of us over 40 – and especially those of us who didn’t live in Alaska, Minnesota, or Florida – remember when eagles were scarce and endangered. Eagles were something we might see some day in a remote wilderness. To have them become common in metro areas around the country is nothing short of amazing.

But this twenty-something grew up with them being common. She doesn’t remember when they were on the Endangered Species List and seeing one was a big deal. She doesn’t remember that there were parks that would close off trails to avoid disturbing nesting eagles, because today they nest right over major bike pedestrian trails and a highway bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

Eagles are a great example of how we sometimes can get conservation very right. And even though we have an overwhelming success of making a few changes and bringing a species like the bald eagle back, we still mess up quite a bit with other species. Last week for example, a press release said that in North America we have lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970. In other words, within one human lifetime, North America lost more than one quarter of its avifauna.

There are bird species that I notice missing from when I was a kid like meadowlarks or nighthawks. If you read the press release put out based on a longterm study by United States Geological Survey there are some overwhelming numbers:

It would be a shame if future generations missed out on hearing the beautiful song of the western meadowlark.

“All told, the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding adults, with devastating losses among birds in every biome. Forests alone have lost 1 billion birds. Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53% or another 720 million birds.

“The losses include favorite species seen at bird feeders, such as dark-eyed juncos (or “snowbirds,” down by 168 million) and sweet-singing white-throated sparrows (down by 93 million). Eastern and western meadowlarks are down by a combined 139 million individuals. Even the beloved red-winged blackbird—a common sight in virtually every marsh and wet roadside across the continent—has declined by 92 million birds.”

On the one hand you can think, “Well, we helped eagles so as long as someone cares about juncos and meadowlarks and it’s not me, that’s OK.” Yet that is the kind of attitude that led us to lose the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet—birds that were super abundant and people shot into extinction.

Bottom line, we have figured out as a society how to help birds like bald eagles. This led to us also helping osprey, peregrine falcons, pelicans, great blue herons, and egrets just to name a few. And it’s not just big birds: We’ve also increased the population of Kirtland’s warblers to more than double the targeted recovery population, and now U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considering removing it from the ESL. We can help these other birds too. It doesn’t necessarily take anything monumental. It just takes each of us doing something small that can help in the long term like panting one native plant in our yard over the next year. Or making the conscious choice that the next cat we own will be an indoor cat. Or doing what we can to minimize window collisions. We didn’t lose so many birds overnight, and it wasn’t one thing that caused it. But we can still correct it.

For more on what you can do, check out these seven simple steps for helping birds.

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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