Birdwatchers gather (in pre-COVID days) on a bridge at the Adkins Arboretum in Maryland’s Caroline County. (Willcook3, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

According to a report published in Science,written by researchers from seven institutions, North America’s bird population has declined by nearly a third since 1970. The estimated population of breeding adult birds on the continent was roughly 10 billion in 1970. By 2019, when the report was published, the number had fallen to a little more than 7 billion, a decline of 2.9 billion birds in just 50 years — across the majority of species and in most of the varied habitats.

The decline has been seen not only in rare, threatened or endangered birds, but also in what some would think of as “common” species — dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, barn swallows, eastern meadowlarks, Baltimore orioles and wood thrushes. More than 90% of the total decline was in just 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, swallows and finches.

Although losing nearly 3 billion birds in less than a person’s lifetime may seem alarming to many people, others may not see the significance in how this loss can affect our lives and our environment. So why should you, your friends or your family care about birds?

  • Your health: Experiencing nature and observing wildlife, including birds, has been shown to improve physical health, decrease stress, and increase education and workplace satisfaction. In fact, listening to bird songs and calls can help improve a person’s mood and attention.
  • Pest control: Birds are our best natural insect control, eating tons of insects annually. As green leaves emerge each spring, so do millions of caterpillars and insects. Coinciding with this event, an array of birds, like orioles, vireos, flycatchers, warblers and swallows return to North America and feast upon the abundant insects. Insect-eating birds protect farm crops from pest damage, free of charge
  • Clean water: Roughly 65% of U.S. drinking water comes from rivers and streams. By planting forest buffers and hedgerows along these waterways, we not only create habitat for birds, we help protect our waterways and improve water quality.
  • The economy: Birds and bird-related activities have a significant economic impact. When people purchase bird food and bird feeders or pay for travel and accommodations when they go birdwatching or bird hunting or attend birding festivals, they help create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue. According to an addendum to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report, 45 million Americans participated in bird-related recreation, spending $39 billion on equipment and trips, pumping $96 billion to the overall economy.

Here are some simple actions we can all take to help birds.

  • Make windows less deadly: In the U.S., an estimated 365 million to 988 million birds die each year from collisions with glass. During the day, birds fly into windows, often fatally, because what we see as a reflection, they see as more air space. At night, during spring and fall bird migrations, some birds are attracted to lighted buildings, resulting in building collisions or exhaustion as they often circle around them. A few simple steps can save birds. On the outside of the window, install screens or break up reflections some other way — using film, tape, paint or even free-hanging lengths of cord or thick string, spaced a few inches apart. Check with local birding organizations for products you can apply to windows. At night, turn off unneeded lights or close blinds or curtains.
  • Keep cats indoors: Cats make great pets but instinctively hunt and kill birds and other wild animals even when they are well-fed. This not only affects birds and small mammals, but cats themselves can pick up diseases and parasites from hunting. You can save birds and keep your cats healthy by keeping the natural hunters indoors and providing them with engaging toys or creating a semi-outdoor enclosure, or “catio,” as many cat owners do.
  • Less lawn, more natives: More development means less wetlands, forests and meadows — habitats that are critical for birds to rest, feed, nest and raise their young. The typical yard, composed of large swaths of turf grass, doesn’t provide enough food, homes or protection for birds. We can all support birds and other wildlife by replacing some lawn area with native grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees.
  • Go easy on the pesticides: Common weed and insect killers can be toxic to wildlife. Pesticides can harm birds directly through contact or if birds eat contaminated seeds, insects or other foods or prey. Many birds feed exclusively on insects, so fewer insects equals fewer birds. Reduce your use of pesticides or, better yet, eliminate them altogether.
  • Drink shade-grown coffee: Many of the migratory birds in North America spend their winters in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. These areas have lots of coffee plantations, many of which follow the standard agricultural practice of clearing trees (bird habitat) so they can plant their crop in open fields. But coffee can be grown underneath a forest canopy, and it is in many places. Coffee grown in the shade conserves the forest ecosystem and the birds that depend on them. If you drink coffee, consider switching to a shade-grown brand.
  • Cut back on plastics: Plastics pollute our oceans, bays and rivers. Birds, especially seabirds and shorebirds, are especially threatened by plastics. They, and other wildlife like turtles, often eat plastic, having mistaken it for food. We can all do our part in reducing plastic pollution by not using single-use plastic items like bags, bottles, wraps and disposable utensils. Choose reusable items instead.
  • Watch, count and share: Monitoring birds is essential to help protect them, but tracking birds across the United States and the globe is a huge undertaking. You can get involved in bird conservation by becoming a citizen scientist, helping researchers answer key questions about birds — such as arrival dates, abundance and departure dates of migratory birds, as well as reporting sightings of rare and common birds. There are many opportunities to observe and report bird findings. Join a project like eBird, Project FeederWatch, the Christmas Bird Count or Breeding Bird Survey to work with other citizen scientists and report your bird observations.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

(1) comment

Jeff in Kensington

Very important column here. Another problem: invasive plants like garlic mustard that have decimated native plants that insects -- bird food -- have munched on and fed their young forever. Most insects eat one plant. Where the plant does not exist, the birds will no longer exist. I suspect this is a bigger problem that outdoor cats. Check with U of Delaware entomologist.

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