New Study Documents Staggering Loss of Birds

Some readers may remember a Lightning Update from June on “signs of hope” and the annual spring migration of songbirds. By its nature, the spectacle of bird migration is inherently hopeful and inspiring.

But … many of you may also have just read articles last week from the New York Times or other sources on a new study published in Science documenting a staggering loss of bird species since 1970 — more than 1 in 4 birds gone from the skies.

John Fitzpatrick and Peter Marra, directors of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Georgetown Environment Initiative, organizations which led the study, write: “Even we were shocked by the results. We knew of well-documented losses among shorebirds and songbirds. But the magnitude of losses among 300 bird species was much larger than we had expected and alarmingly widespread across the continent.”

They note: “Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble. Unfortunately, this study is just the latest in a long line of such mounting evidence.”

Fitzpatrick and Marra’s call to action published in the New York Times on Thursday is compelling. They don’t mince words. Nor does Michael Parr, President of the American Bird Conservancy, in a column in the Washington Post. But, they all also offer hope, reminding us that our own actions have restored bird populations before.

Many raptors — like the Chesapeake’s iconic Osprey — have come back from massive declines following the elimination of rampant DDT use. And the authors note the study found North American duck and geese populations have increased by 56% since 1970 — and not by accident. Hunters were deeply concerned by declining ducks and geese in the mid-20th century. Comprehensive efforts by federal and state governments and Ducks Unlimited led to millions of acres of wetlands protection and restoration. And waterfowl populations boomed.

Fitzpatrick and Marra call for “bold, landscape-scale conservation campaigns across North America that are comparable with those that brought back the ducks.” There are a range of necessary actions, including steps individuals can take. But personal conservation actions alone are not enough. Systematic efforts, including protecting against habitat loss – a key factor in bird decline, are critical.

The Chesapeake watershed is central to the Atlantic flyway, a major North American migratory route. The bird decline study reaffirms the call to action in the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s major report released earlier this month. We face a new urgency. Science points to the need for protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 and 50% by 2050 as an essential cornerstone for sustaining the climate and biodiversity that support our lives. Reaching 30% in the Chesapeake watershed means protecting another 3.1 million acres of vital bird and wildlife habitat, forests and other values central to our quality of life. A daunting challenge? Yes, but achievable. And all that we care about depends on concerted action.

For compelling images and the short story on the decline in birds, watch the video below from www.3billionbirds.org.