Bird Watchers: Bird Emergency
By GARY METZGER
A bird watching friend of mine has often mentioned that he is just not seeing as many birds in his favorite spots as in years past. I have usually just offered that neither he nor I are getting any younger and that our eyes and ears aren’t what they once were. Similarly, we here at Lycoming Audubon get inquiries from folks about how few birds they’re seeing at their backyard feeders. “Some times of the year wild birds are just out feeding in their wild places,” is how I have usually responded.
It turns out that I’ve been wrong on both counts. Last month research published in the journal Science documented that the U.S. and Canada have lost almost 30% of our birds since 1970. Put another way, the total number of birds in the two countries was 2.9 billion higher in 1970 than in 2017 when this research was completed. That’s Billion, with a “B”-just a staggering decline in such a relatively short period of time! The causes of these losses are pretty well understood. The loss of habitat due to human development and urbanization, toxicity of pesticides and herbicides to birds and the insects they feed on, predation by outdoor cats, and mortality due to collisions with man-made structures all contribute to avian mortality. The rapidly changing global climate is sited in this report as an overarching stressor of bird populations.
Then earlier this month the National Audubon Society came out with a fifth year anniversary update of it’s 2014 “Climate and Birds” report. Entitled “Survival by Degrees: Bird Species on the Brink”, the report indicates that 389 of the 604 species of birds studied are at risk of extinction due to climate change. According to David Yarnold, CEO and President of Audubon, this new research takes what we know about the dire situation with North America’s birds today and pivots forward to project species level impacts associated with the changing climate.
It turns out that our birds are having a rough time now trying to keep up with the unprecedented pace of change in climate which is affecting every aspect of their lives. Based on Audubon’s research, if the pace of global warming continues on its current trajectory, our children will live to see a world in which they have roughly 1/3 as many bird species to enjoy as we have presently. It’s hard for me to even imagine a world without so many of the birds that help make our back yards and all of the natural spaces in our world such vibrant and beautiful places.
Of course in the greater scheme of things perhaps my wishes and hopes for the richness of our future generations’ lives is not the major point here. The Audubon report suggests that the continent’s wild birds are in fact the “canaries in the coal mine,” alerting us of deadly consequences if we fail to heed their alarm.
Can our forests and woodlands long prosper without the springtime waves of billions of caterpillar-eating birds to sweep the leaf eating insects from the trees’ tender foliage?
What happens to the populations of mosquitoes and other noxious insects when the swallows and swifts aren’t spending 16 hours a day eating them?
If creatures as mobile and adaptable as birds cannot handle the ongoing changes in the earth’s climate and weather, how could we expect earthbound creatures like frogs, salamanders, fish, rabbits etc. to survive. In such a world, surely even humans would struggle mightily.
Many of the remedies for the looming impacts on the birds are well known. We can protect existing habitat on both public and private lands for birds and other critters. We can start with our own towns, cities and properties to plant native trees and shrubs that birds can feed and nest in. We can use fewer or no pesticides and herbicides on our properties and we can urge our environmental, public health and agricultural agencies to work towards natural pest control.
Most immediately though, we must not turn away from the reality that continuing to add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to our atmosphere will lead to disaster. We need to talk to our representatives at local, state and federal levels and tell them that we want action on this critical problem. In our personal lives we can reduce our own carbon footprints, stay away form toxic pesticides, reduce the amount of non-reusable products we buy, recycle the single use packaging materials that we can’t avoid and demand that manufacturers and producers of products we use move towards reusable and/or recyclable products.
Audubon has been fighting to protect birds and our natural world continuously since 1905. We invite you to join us for the biggest, most urgent battle of all. Check us out at audubon.org for information about what you can do.
Gary Metzger is past President and currently the Conservation Chair of the Lycoming Audubon Society. He is a life-long resident of Lycoming County, an avid hunter and fisherman in his younger years and an enthusiastic birder and advocate for environmental protection and conservation is his retirement.
The Lycoming Audubon Society is a chapter of the National Audubon Society with responsibility for members in Lycoming and Clinton counties. Information about the society and events can be found at http://lycomingaudubon. blogspot.com. The public is invited to share local sightings and join discussions at https://www.facebook.com/groups/lycomingAudubon.