3 Billion Birds Gone

Study Shows 1 in 4 Birds Lost in North America

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Losing 3 billion of anything is bad, so the fact that the U.S. and Canada have lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970 is devastating.

Let me say that number again so it can sink in.

2.9 Billion Birds Gone
2.9 Billion Birds Gone Since 1970 Photo: Cornell lab of Ornithology

3 Billion Birds Lost

If birds were money, we’d never accept losing 3 billion of them.

But they’re birds.

Animals with wings that some people overlook, or think they can be replaced.

These birds are lost, and not coming back.

Study Shows 1 in 4 Birds Lost in North America

In less than a single lifetime, North America has lost 1 in 4 birds (nearly 3 billion birds), according to a study published in the journal Science.

We all have dreams and goals we hope to attain in our lifetime.

But saying our claim-to-fame is seeing a massive reduction in hundreds of bird species, from beloved backyard songbirds to long-distance migrants is not one of them.

The bird species lost include beloved iconic songsters such as the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks (down 139 million).

And some of our favorite birds we welcome at our backyard bird feeders such as Dark-eyes Juncos (down 168 million) and sweet-singing White-throated Sparrows (down 93 million).

These numbers aren’t the Dow Jones Industrial Averages, they’re birds we’ve lost.

Study Shows Losses of Backyard Birds

“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” says Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy.

“We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds,” adds Rosenberg.

Some of our favorite backyard birds such as Dark-eyes Juncos are down 168 million. Photo: Dark-Eyed Junco by JayMcGowan, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Some of our favorite backyard birds such as Dark-eyes Juncos are down 168 million. Photo: Dark-Eyed Junco by JayMcGowan, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The study notes that birds are indicators of environmental health.

Signaling that natural systems across the U.S. and Canada are now severely impacted by human activities.

The disappearance of even common species indicates a general shift in our ecosystems’ ability to support basic birdlife.

12 Bird Families Impacted

Findings show that of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90% belong to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows.

These common, widespread species play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control.

Birds in steep declines include:

-Grassland birds have a 53% reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970.

-Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population.

-The volume of spring migration, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14% in just the past decade.

Shorebirds, such as Sanderlings, have lost more than one-third of their population. Photo: Sanderling by Andy Eckerson, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Shorebirds, such as Sanderlings, have lost more than one-third of their population. Photo: Sanderling by Andy Eckerson, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cause for Decline of 3 Billion Birds

The study didn’t analyze the cause of the declines but notes that the steep drop in North American birds parallels the losses of birds elsewhere in the world.

This suggests multiple interacting causes that reduce breeding success and increase mortality.

The most significant factor driving these declines is likely the widespread loss and degradation of habitat, primarily due to agricultural intensification and urbanization.

Grassland birds such as the Western Meadowlark have a 53% reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970. Photo: Western Meadowlark by Matthew Pendleton, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Grassland birds such as the Western Meadowlark have a 53% reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970. Photo: Western Meadowlark by Matthew Pendleton, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Other studies document bird losses from predation by free-roaming domestic cats, collisions with glass, buildings, and other structures, and pervasive use of pesticides associated with widespread declines in insects, an essential food source for birds.

Climate change compounds these challenges by altering habitats and threatening plant communities that birds need to survive.

Scientists say more research is needed to pinpoint primary causes for declines in individual species.

Still a Chance to Save Birds

This story is not over.

“There are so many ways to help save birds,” says co-author Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy.

He says some require policy decisions such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

And working to ban harmful pesticides and adequately fund effective bird conservation programs.

“Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save the lives of millions of birds — actions like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors, and protecting habitat,” says Parr.

90% of nearly 3 billion birds lost belong to 12 bird families, including the swallows — common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control. Photo: Barn Swallow by Karen Hogan, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
90% of nearly 3 billion birds lost belong to 12 bird families, including the swallows — common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control. Photo: Barn Swallow by Karen Hogan, Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Loss is a Wake-up Call

Losing more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada is a wake-up call.

“But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders,” says co-author Adam Smith from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Many of the birds that breed in Canadian backyards migrate through or spend the winter in the U.S. and places farther south — from Mexico and the Caribbean to Central and South America.

“What our birds need now is a historic, hemispheric effort that unites people and organizations with one common goal: bringing our birds back,” he adds.

Birds are in trouble, but you can help.

Read about the 8 ways to make your home and lifestyle bird-friendly here.

Let’s all #coexist on this planet.

Protect birds, and we protect the earth.

Read the study published in Science magazine here.

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