Believe it or not, we are only a handful of weeks away from needing to be thinking about bird feeders. Vermonters seem to love watching birds; many homes are stocked with various incarnations of “Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America.”
It’s what we do.
News this week strikes at the very heart of our affinity for bird-watching.
A report in The New York Times suggests the skies do not have as many birds, in large part because of pesticides.
According to the Times, the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29% since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were just 50 years ago.
The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations.
David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, called the findings “a full-blown crisis.”
According to the Times report, experts have long known that some bird species have become vulnerable to extinction. But the new study, based on a broad survey of more than 500 species, reveals steep losses even among such traditionally abundant birds as robins and sparrows.
There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides, the article states. “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds:
“On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other birds voices, there was no sound.”
Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, told the Times just how scary this scenario is: “This is the loss of nature.”
Perhaps more than most people understand, Vermonters seem to get that common bird species are vital to ecosystems, controlling pests, pollinating flowers, spreading seeds and regenerating forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats often are not the same.
And the findings are not some kind of lark (pun intended).
A team of researchers from universities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations collaborated on the new study, which combined old and new methods for counting birds.
In the new study, the researchers turned to those surveys to estimate the populations of 529 species between 2006 and 2015.
Those estimates include 76% of all bird species in the United States and Canada, but represent almost the entire population of birds. (The species for which there weren’t enough data to make firm estimates occur only in small numbers.)
To say the results are stunning is an understatement.
These are not birds on the endangered species list. These are the species of household birds we see every day in our dooryards, shrubs and neighborhoods.
And this is our fault. We have decided there is not enough room for wildlife.
We have already significantly altered three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of the oceans, according to scientific research. More than a third of land and three-quarters of freshwater resources are devoted to crops or livestock.
Around 700 vertebrates have gone extinct in the past few centuries. Forty percent of amphibians and a third of coral species, sharks and marine mammals look set to follow.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” says Josef Settele, author of a report on humankind’s role on wildlife. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
The main reason is simple: Our expanding farms and cities are leaving less room for wildlife. The other major causes are the direct exploitation of wildlife such as hunting, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species.
Students who read Rachel Carson understand her invaluable message was lost. This news demonstrates she was correct, and the loss is the planet’s.