Nation’s birds need our help
Awake in middle night recently, I wandered outside for some fresh air to “take inventory” on nature’s nocturnal goings-on. Someone at the edge of hearing was playing a radio.
Or so I thought. But as I stood for a few minutes, listening, the vague sound of that distant “radio” began to crystallize and I suddenly realized I was listening to the calls of a high-flying skein of Canada geese in migration. It gave me goosebumps to listen to this ancient singing.
No, these weren’t the giant honkers that poop on sidewalks and golf courses everywhere nowadays. These were northern birds, boogeying south for the winter. Their calls were sharper, higher-pitched, more clipped than the forlorn honks of local giants. Besides, it sounded like there were dozens of birds in the formation, each perhaps shouting encouragement and direction to one another.
It was a surreal experience. They were up there, out of sight, departed from somewhere and headed somewhere. But clearly they knew.
Night migration is common, but witnessing it is not. And it got me to musing about the recently released State of the Birds 2022 report. The news is not good overall, though a bright spot offers a ray of hope, an off-ramp in the general downward spiral of bird populations.
The 2022 report was produced by 33 leading science and conservation organizations and agencies that include all the big players, from Ducks Unlimited and National Wildlife Federation to the U.S. departments of fish and wildlife, parks, agriculture and more. It is authoritative. Moreover the report is the first update on the status of the nation’s birds since a landmark 2019 study, which showed the loss of three billion birds in the United States and Canada in 50 years.
The upside of the report is that long-term trends for waterfowl show strong increases where investments in wetland conservation have improved conditions for birds and people. But data reveals the downside that birds overall in the United States are declining in every other habitat—forests, grasslands, deserts, and oceans.
Major findings include these:
- More than half of U.S. bird species are declining.
- U.S. grassland birds are among the fastest declining with a 34% loss since 1970. Think greater sage grouse.
- Waterbirds and ducks in the U.S. have increased by 18% and 34% respectively during the same period.
- Seventy newly identified Tipping Point species have each lost 50% or more of their populations in the past 50 years, and are on a track to lose another half in the next 50 years if nothing changes. They include intriguing species such as Rufous Hummingbirds, songsters such as Golden-winged Warblers, and oceanic travelers such as Black-footed Albatrosses.
“The rapid declines in birds signal the intensifying stresses that wildlife and people alike are experiencing around the world because of habitat loss, environmental degradation and extreme climate events,” said Dr. Amanda Rodewald, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Avian Population Studies.
“Taking action to bring birds back delivers a cascade of benefits that improve climate resilience and quality of life for people. When we restore forests, for example, we sequester carbon, reduce fire intensity, and create habitat for plants and animals. By greening cities, we provide heat relief, increase access to recreation, and create refuge for migrating birds.”
The report used five sources of data, including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count, to track the health of breeding birds in habitats across the United States.
“From grassland birds to seabirds to Hawaiian birds, we continue to see that nearly all groups of birds and types of bird habitat have declined significantly,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The one group that is seeing an increase in population size are wetland dependent birds, including waterfowl.”
Dr. Karen Waldrop, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited, added this: “While a majority of bird species are declining, many waterbird populations remain healthy, thanks to decades of collaborative investments from hunters, landowners, state and federal agencies, and corporations,” said. “This is good news not only for birds, but for the thousands of other species that rely on wetlands, and the communities that benefit from groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, and flood protection.”
Williams of the USFWS further noted: “The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Federal Duck Stamp Program, grants from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and regional Joint Ventures partnerships are all part of a framework that has a proven track record with restoring and protecting wetland-dependent species. Now we want to use that precedent to work with our partners to restore bird populations, conserve habitat, and build a foundation for how we respond to the loss of other bird groups.”
So, the evidence is there, plainspoken. We cannot whine when it is too late that we did not know. It is incumbent on all of us who enjoy listening to the song of night-migrating geese keep this issue in the public eye and will.