Column: 3 billion birds have vanished from our skies. Can we ever bring them back?
Look! Up in the sky! It’s … not as much as there used to be. Three billion wild birds have vanished from North America’s air in 50 years; a new study calls that loss “staggering.” Three billion is as many as 1 bird in 4 — birds of the forests, birds of the grasslands, gone. And 50 years is about the same time that it took North America to send the passenger pigeon — once the most abundant bird on the continent, flying by the billions in flocks that blocked the sun for hours at a time — to send it into extinction. These creatures who evolved from the dinosaurs, who delight us with color and song — humans are crowding them out, plowing up and chopping down their habitat, poisoning them with pesticides, installing windows that they smash into, allowing domestic cats to kill them. And just over a century after the nation began protecting its native birds with the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Trump administration is ready to weaken its enforcement. Steve Holmer heads the American Bird Conservancy, whose motto is “Bringing back the birds.” Can it be done, and how?
Three billion birds in 50 years in this country. Why are they disappearing?
We believe it’s a combination of things. Migratory birds spend the majority of their year in the south, either the southern U.S. or in Central or South America. And so there’s all kinds of habitat issues there. And then when they actually migrate, they have what’s called stopover places, where they basically need to stop and fuel up again. If that habitat isn’t in good condition, or if they face threats there, then that could affect their migration.
Some new studies indicate that pesticides might prevent migrating birds from gaining sufficient weight. On these stopover points, they typically will gorge themselves and gain a bunch of weight so that they can fly — in some cases all the way up to the Arctic where they have their chicks. And then they come all the way back. It’s quite a gantlet that they go through. We think all of this is adding up into these declines.
Make the case for why bird life matters. People think aah, it’s just sparrows, aah, it’s just pigeons.
They’re actually a very good indicator of the overall health of the environment. When we see these bird declines, it’s an indication that in a sense there’s something out of balance. And we’ve seen certain habitats removed to a degree that the birds would become endangered. At the same time, we’ve had some very successful conservation efforts. We’ve brought the bald eagle back, for example. Its population is now increasing 10% a year, the result of banning DDT and other efforts to protect it.
Seventy years ago, Communist China crusaded against sparrows as “public animals of capitalism,” and killed billions. Without the sparrows to eat them, insects flourished, crops were destroyed and millions of Chinese starved. The earth needs birds. People need birds.
Birds play a crucial role within the ecosystem in terms of eating insects and other things and then also being eaten by other things. Part of the reason why the loss of the 3 billion birds is so significant is, that’s a huge loss of biomass that used to be in the system. We need to think about doing some things to try to restore balance.
What kinds of birds were foremost among those 3 billion that aren’t around anymore?
Really common birds, meadowlarks; grassland birds in particular seem to have taken a really huge dip. There have been some new studies showing significant impacts from pesticides. And an ongoing process called intensification with agriculture, where they’re using more and more of the land in a much more intensive fashion. And the result is there’s just less available for wildlife.
It really gets down to the price of corn in some ways. And then the subsidies for corn ethanol have actually been pretty bad for birds because they’re leading to the sod-busting and we don’t have a whole lot of original prairie left.
About a year ago the Natural Resources Management Act was signed into law by the Trump administration — a bundle of bills, and a lot of conservation groups had campaigned for them. Isn’t that something of a step forward?
It wasn’t a perfect deal, though. There was still a rider in there that prevents protection for the greater sage grouse, which right now is in severe decline. The sage grouse is a bird that lives all across the Great Basin, a little bit in northern California. That kind of desert country is where you’ll find sage grouse. They actually will eat the sagebrush and hide in it. They’re an excellent indicator for basically pristine, wide open spaces. They like big areas. They like it quiet.
As energy development and other things have descended upon that region, we’ve actually seen the grouse population decline by as much as 90%.
When we see species like the meadowlark start to disappear, species that were so common, that’s not a good harbinger for rarer species in more endangered habitats, is it?
No, that’s exactly the issue. We do carefully look at all the bird populations. There is a lot of focus on the birds that might become endangered; there’s a big effort to head that off.
But we’ve also found that once the bird is listed [as endangered], recovery efforts tend to be successful. We did an analysis a couple of years ago and found out that the biggest need for the Endangered Species Act was to increase this funding for recovery.
A number of birds have just been delisted. One of them was the Kirtland’s warbler up in Michigan, and that’s just a result of successful conservation efforts. There are some good success stories — the interior least tern and the Kirtland’s warbler and a few others are definitely at a point where they seem to be safe and stable in terms of avoiding extinction and on their way to recovery.
But others worry you.
Well, changes to the law itself are worrying me. There’s been some rule-making that can make it very difficult to get protection for new species or provide for adequate habitat protection.
I do think that the process has become politicized and we’re feeling it’s a real challenge to get a level of protection that the birds really need.
People know the phrase “canary in the mine shaft,” meaning an early harbinger of something bad about to happen. Now it seems like our whole wild bird population is the canary in the mine shaft.
That’s right, and they also are showing that they are a big indicator for global warming and climate change. You’re seeing range shifts; because it’s a little warmer, the birds are actually much further north and they’re literally following the climate band as it as it changes.
They’re fortunate in the sense that they can fly to the to a new ideal environment for themselves. Not every critter has that luxury.
As we expand, as our population gets bigger, our agricultural needs are bigger, people cut down forests for wood for myriad purposes, the birds— they gotta give.
We really do need to provide incentives to landowners to grow trees and to maintain their forests. If property values shift too far, they might go into real estate and all that land gets developed.
If we need to grow trees for climate [change purposes], we should make it a real lucrative thing for the landowner to do.
How successful is that?
We’re seeing some success. The California carbon market is really probably the greatest example where it allows for forest conservation projects. Most of them have either longer rotation, forestry or reforestation. And so either way, the environment is winning, because we’re growing trees and absorbing that carbon and providing for that habitat. The California market is something that we probably need to make national.
There was a conflict in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s over loggers versus habitat and the endangered northern spotted owl; I think one bumper stickers said something like, “Save a logger, eat a spotted owl.” Is that the way our relationship with the natural world in general and birds and in particular is going?
It is kind of ironic because birds in general are very popular, but a couple of birds like the greater sage grouse and the spotted owl have been the flashpoint for these huge land use issues, whether it’s conservation of the many millions of acres of public lands in the sagebrush country or the old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.
The fact that these birds declined so far is really kind of an indication that the habitat was not being used and not being properly conserved.
There’s been, I think, a very successful effort to protect the old-growth forest under the Northwest Forest Plan, but it’s by no means a perfect plan. But it has brought an end to the worst type of old-growth logging that used to happen.
And we are actually seeing some real benefits in terms of improved water quality. The forests in the region are now a big carbon sink where they absorb carbon instead of being a source of emissions every year or so.
So the public has seen some real side benefit in addition to the conservation of the forests.
Unfortunately, we have some policymakers who are trying to open up the old-growth forest again to logging, whether it be in Alaska or in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California. And we’re trying to counter that.
A lot of the work that we do is in partnership with other conservation groups. We manage a coalition called the Bird Conservation Alliance, which has over 200 groups doing public outreach and events to raise awareness about our program.
People like the idea of birds — they just don’t perhaps make the connection between, Oh, that’s a bird, and I like to hear it, I like to see it … and what it takes to keep that bird alive.
And sometimes people don’t see how their actions might affect things. A couple of the biggest sources of mortality for birds are window collisions and cats.
With windows, it’s estimated about a billion [birds are killed] a year, and it tends to be on the glass facades and ground-level windows that reflect foliage. There are ways, despite how the landscape is designed or where the windows are themselves; there’ve been windows tested that reduce the number of collisions. We’re working on various pieces of legislation that encourage the use of bird-safe building designs and materials.
There’s actually solutions for homeowners. There’s glass products and films that they can put on the windows to treat them so that the collisions can be greatly reduced.
The same with cats. Keeping cats indoors is safer for the cat. And it greatly reduces the predation that would happen if they were outdoors.
Many people let their cats outside to roam around, not thinking about the devastation that cats can wreak by killing birds — not a pleasant thing for bird lovers or for cat lovers.
In the West, there’s there is a big problem for cat owners seeing their cats outdoors having all kinds of issues, whether it’s fights with other cats, getting hit by cars and that kind of thing.
But the big issue lately is coyotes. If you’re leaving your cat outside, particularly at night, it’s a huge risk to them.
How many birds are cats killing?
Well, it is estimated it’s in the billions. Particularly when you think about the fledgling birds, they tend to be very vulnerable for their first couple of months, before they’ve really gotten to be full size and full strength. There’s just a tremendous toll every year.
What about windmills? President Trump says windmills kill a lot of birds.
Windmills do kill birds. We estimate as many as a million birds a year are killed by wind turbines and associated infrastructure. There are guidelines in place right now that can reduce this mortality. Unfortunately, they’re not being used that consistently. We’re working on a [proposed] piece of legislation called the Migratory Bird Protection Act that we think eventually could lead to these guidelines getting into use more often.
The changes that are happening to the [landmark 1918] Migratory Bird Treaty Act by the administration right now — one of the biggest problems is the fact that it won’t encourage us to solve these problems any longer. The law was intended to encourage industry to find ways to stop killing birds accidentally. So whether it be [birds] falling into oil pits or running into communications towers, there has been a lot of effort over time to reduce that mortality.
As a result of this change that’s been proposed by the administration and already put in effect through a legal opinion a couple of years ago, we’re actually no longer seeing enforcement that we used to have.
So at the same time bird populations are declining, we’re actually seeing weaker enforcement and weaker protection.
With wind and also with oil and gas and pretty much on any aspect, they’ve basically said that they’re no longer going to enforce the law.
And this could even be in extreme worst cases of oil spills where, in the past, there would have been big fines applied. Now they’re basically saying there’s no law any longer.
We’re already fighting, as is the state of California. We’re hopeful to overturn their efforts to weaken the law.
The Migratory Bird Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal from California, would actually kind of bring about these best management practices that I was just talking about. The bill has gone through a House committee and is awaiting a vote on the House floor. And people can express their support to their lawmakers to pass the Migratory Bird Protection Act.
It sounds like California’s doing a pretty good job of getting on top of this.
California has an outstanding legislature in terms of passing bills to protect the environment and fill in the gap while the federal government is kind of dithering about right now.
One area where California took the lead was in the phase-out of toxic lead ammunition. There’s now nontoxic alternatives available.
Most Americans live in suburban or urban areas now. I’m wondering about the urban bird population.
There’s actually a lot that we can do in our urban areas. Urban forests are very important. And each homeowner can do things with their own landscaping, things that that could actually really benefit wildlife, just in our own back yard.
Are you a birdwatcher? Is there a species that speaks to you?
Right now, I’d have to say the marbled murrelet is the species that really speaks to me. It’s right on the coast of northern California and Oregon and Washington state. And it’s a neat little seabird that goes out and forges on little fish and then it nest in the tops of old-growth trees. Those tend to be the very biggest trees that are like 200 years old or older. So there’s a huge overlap between the marbled murrelet and these really high-carbon forests that are valuable in terms of the fight on climate change. There’s all kinds of habitat protection and recreation.
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