(flowenol/depositphotos)

Not long ago the rising dawn would usher in a symphony of bright birdsong. Today, in too many places, the avian orchestra has faded to a few solitary notes.

Birds have been disappearing for the past half century. Since 1970, North America has lost nearly a third of its breeding-age birds — some three billion adults — according to a study published in the journal, “Science.” Many losses are of common species including warblers, blackbirds, finches, and sparrows. This ominous trend is not limited to the Western Hemisphere. Almost half the world’s 11,000 bird species are in trouble and twelve percent face extinction. Grassland birds, shorebirds, and sea ducks have been particularly hard hit. Even ospreys, a recent success story, are now experiencing nest failures in Chesapeake Bay.

The reasons for the plummeting populations are complex but distressingly familiar. Environmental degradation and habitat loss affect not only breeding and wintering grounds, but also traditional stops along migratory routes. The large monoculture tracts of intensive agriculture eliminate hedgerows, edge environments, and other favored bird locales. Pesticides kill insects that many birds feed on. Rising seas from climate change inundate coastal nesting sites. Introduced exotic species displace native birds. Free-roaming domestic cats kill many birds. 

Consider the plight of a few previously common species. Bobolinks were once considered pests as large flocks ravaged rice fields in the southern U.S. Today the species is in steep decline, because of the loss of fields where they nest and a trend toward earlier haying by farmers, while nesting is still in progress. 

Salt marsh sparrows may be headed toward extinction. These elusive nondescript birds breed in marsh grasses along a narrow strip of sea-land boundary in the Eastern U.S. But rising sea levels — two to six millimeters per year — threaten their vulnerable nesting sites. 

Evening grosbeaks were once common winter visitors at bird feeders. Since 1970 their numbers have declined by 90 percent for reasons as yet undetermined. 

Ospreys and other raptors have thrived since the near ban of DDT in 1972. But for the past fifteen years, ospreys in the lower Chesapeake Bay have seen steadily rising nest failures; in 2023 their reproductive rate was down to 0.13 chicks per breeding pair. Scientists suspect that commercial menhaden harvests have severely depleted this primary source of osprey feed during the breeding season.

Even some of our most familiar birds, like juncos, white-throated sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, barn swallows, cardinals, wrens, blue jays, and goldfinches are suffering steep declines. These losses have profound implications. Birds are important pollinators, seed-spreaders, and regulators of insect populations. Their status is an indicator — and predictor — of the health of ecosystems. When we lose birds and degrade their habitats other resident species also suffer, including reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants. 

We can reverse this sad trend and restore bird populations to previous levels. We’ve done it before — the story of raptors and DDT is a case in point. And there is some good news in the otherwise depressing statistics about bird populations. Some species are doing well, particularly waterfowl like ducks, geese, and swans. Their success is likely attributable to a powerful constituency of hunters who have lobbied for conservation programs and wetlands preservation policies. 

Together, we can have an equally effective voice on behalf of all birds. Interest in bird-watching and feeding birds, always strong, expanded during the recent pandemic, as people sought outdoor recreation. Dozens of organizations support bird research and conservation; many, including Audubon, welcome citizen-scientists to assist with bird counts. For more information, see https://www.audubon.org/. We can encourage and support incentives for conservation programs and farming practices that conserve bird habitats and nesting sites and reduce the use of pesticides. As individuals we can deter bird collisions with windows, better control our pet cats, and improve bird habitats around our homes by adding bird-friendly plant species to lawn areas. 

Saving birds and conserving their habitats also helps humans. Protecting wetlands can support water quality and quantity and flood mitigation. Managing and expanding forests and green spaces can increase carbon capture, offsetting climate change, and reduce heat in urban and suburban neighborhoods. The bottom line: What’s good for the birds is good for us.

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Henry S. Parker is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University. He can be contacted at [email protected]