Millions of birds die but we never see it—they like privacy in this holy, fatal moment or so I think.—Jim Harrison
Perched on a rock knuckle, glassing an exhausted meadow, the first flush of hope burns off with the morning fog. No deer, no elk, nothing moving. You’re left picking apart pockets of broken country through long glass, rationing snacks, shifting positions just often enough to keep your ass from falling asleep.
At some point, you start to notice birds: hoarse crows, plaintive jays, sonorous songbirds, shrieking raptors. As hunters, our most consistent, and maybe best field companions are avian. On the slow days we can rest in those songs—but they may be fading.
According to a new study published in Science, we’re hearing fewer birds than we did a generation ago: “Cumulative loss of nearly three billion birds since 1970, across most North American biomes, signals a pervasive and ongoing avifaunal crisis.”
Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and one of the study’s authors, told NPR, “We saw this tremendous net loss across the entire bird community. By our estimates, it’s a 30% loss in the total number of breeding birds.”
Rosenberg and his colleagues evaluated population change since 1970 for 529 species of birds in the U.S. and Canada. They combed multiple bird monitoring datasets from numerous survey sources, including the Audubon Society and the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They also looked at radar data from weather stations, which pick up flocks of birds while scanning for storms. Using these two completely different monitoring techniques, the researchers conclude that migratory bird populations are down across all three North American flyways: the Eastern, Central, and Pacific.
Grassland birds, forest birds, shorebirds, sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, and finches are disappearing in the largest numbers, averaging a 40% loss. Raptors are one of the few groups to show a population increase, a direct result of the ban of DDT in the 1960s.
Perhaps not surprising to hunters, certain gamebirds also increased. Turkey and grouse numbers are up 25%, and waterfowl have increased 56% over the past 50 years—a testament to the power of engaged and motivated conservation.
Here, we find a sliver of hope. According to the study, “Population declines can be reversed, as evidenced by the remarkable recovery of waterfowl populations.” The researchers see the restoration and protection of wetlands “providing a model for proactive conservation in other widespread native habitats such as grasslands.”
Now, we need to harness the enthusiasm and resolve of the bird hunting community and direct that sort of action to all bird populations.