Can a Recovery Take Wing?

Author:Gonzalez, Nicolas
Position:EYE ON ECOLOGY - Bird conservation

"THE CONNECTION between birds and humans is undeniable--we share the same fate. There is a bird emergency with a clear message: the natural world humans depend on is being paved, logged, eroded, and polluted. You don't need to look hard for the metaphor: birds are the canaries in the coal mine that is the Earth's future," insists David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

Science has published a study by a joint team of conservation biologists describing a grim picture: a steady decline of nearly 3,000,000,000 North American birds since 1970, primarily as a result of human activities. In other words, within one human lifetime, the continent lost more than one-quarter of its avifauna.

To conduct the study, researchers--led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, U.S. Geological Survey, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center--analyzed data from five decades' worth of on-the-ground bird surveys, including data from Audubon's Christmas Bird Count, in addition to studying the number of migratory birds in flight captured by 143 weather radar stations located across the U.S. Such drastic declines of bird populations are not limited to North America, as similar drops are taking place across the globe. Losses were seen in all types of birds and, for some species, the staggering losses of individuals numbered in the tens of millions.

"This is a full-blown crisis that requires political leadership as well as mass individual action," stresses Yarnold. "We have to act now to protect the places we know birds rely on. Places like the Arctic Refuge, Great Lakes, Everglades, and Colorado River must be a priority. From the newest Audubon members to the most-tenured senators, we all can act today to protect birds and the places they need."

The bird declines are due to varying causes, all of which are results of human activity. These include habitat loss via agricultural conversion and urban development; predation from outdoor cats; collisions with buildings and windows; and widespread pesticide use, which also kills off insects, an important source of food for birds.

"Birds are excellent indicators of environmental health," says Nicole Michel, senior quantitative ecologist with Audubon. "Severe declines in common birds, like those shown in this study, tell us something is wrong and underscores the need to become better stewards of the planet."


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