Bird species crisis affects all humanity

Nearly 3 billion birds – around one-third of all wild birds – in the United States and Canada have disappeared in the last 50 years, a “staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unraveling,” scientists say. The massive reduction, reported in September in the journal Science, involves hundreds of species of birds, from beloved songbirds to long-distance migratory birds. The comprehensive study was conducted by a team of scientists from seven research institutions in the United States and Canada.

“This is an indication that nature is unraveling and that ecosystems are highly stressed,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy and a co-author of the study. Since 1970, in less than a single lifetime, numbers have plummeted across North America, even among common species like meadowlarks, swallows, warblers, finches, and sparrows, which all play important ecosystem roles from seed dispersal to pest control. The loss signals a widespread ecological crisis, say experts.

“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,” said Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. “The decline of birds signals a broader crisis in the natural world already echoed by global losses in insects, amphibians, and other wildlife. Our quality of life – the water we drink, the food we eat, and the beauty of natural landscapes that we enjoy – all depend on keeping our planet healthy. Conservation actions work, and there is no time to lose,” states the website created by six major conservation organizations for urgent action.

Although the study did not analyze the reasons for the decline, it noted that the steep drop in North American birds parallels the losses of birds elsewhere in the world – like the loss of 421 million birds in Europe over 30 years – and blames the widespread loss and degradation of habitat due to urbanization and increased agricultural production; the pervasive use of pesticides that kill the insects many birds eat; collisions with glass windows, buildings, and other structures; and climate change that alters habitats and threatens the vegetation that birds need to survive.

A recent United Nations report warned that 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction due to humans’ impact on the natural world and as the climate warms. Birds are indicator species of environmental health and are the best-studied group of wildlife. Their populations have been carefully monitored over many decades by scientists and citizen bird-lovers alike. And in recent years, scientists have been able to track bird migrations in North America through a network of 143 high-resolution weather radars.

“it is imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, both because the domino effects can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods,” said co-author Peter Marra, senior scientist emeritus and former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and now director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University. “it is a wake-up call that we have lost more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada,” said co-author Adam Smith from Environment and Climate Change Canada. “But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders. 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 an historic, hemispheric effort that unites people and organizations with one common goal: bringing our birds back.”

Mike Parr, of the American Bird Conservancy, insists more conservation funding should be directed to countries in Central and South America where many of North America’s birds spend most of their lives during winter migration. More than 350 bird species from North America migrate to Costa Rica and further to South America every year, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. During the autumn and spring months, approximately 3 million birds will pass over Costa Rica, which is among the top five favorite countries for bird-watching due to having a little over 900 bird species recorded here.

“There are so many ways to help save birds,” said Parr. “Some require policy decisions, such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We can also work to ban harmful pesticides and properly 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 … and protecting habitat.”

Scientists point hopefully to the recovery of North American duck and geese populations as an example of how conservation management and private philanthropy can restore bird species. The numbers of ducks and geese have grown by 56% since 1970 thanks to conservation laws in the U.S. and Canada to protect wetlands and the two nations collaborating with Mexico to safeguard migrating waterfowl.

During the first half of the 20th century, declines in duck populations were just as severe as what is happening among common songbirds today. “What we need most is a societal shift in the values we place on living side-by-side with healthy and functioning natural systems. Natural habitat must not be viewed as an expendable luxury but as a crucial system that fosters human health and supports all life on the planet,” states an article in the New York Times by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Peter Marra, director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. They said: “The loss of nearly 3 billion birds signals a looming crisis that we have the power to stop. We call on all our lawmakers, political candidates, and voters across the continent to place renewed value on protecting our common home – the great tapestry of natural systems we share with other species and must protect for future generations.”

Juan Carlos Ramírez
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Hello, I’m Juan Carlos Ramírez. I’ve got a background in Advertising and currently work in tourism, which is a perfect fit for my love of blending creativity with strategy. Beyond the office, I’m passionate about architecture, history, and video games. Exploring the beauty of buildings, uncovering the past, and going on virtual adventures are some of my favorite things. Let’s connect and share some awesome experiences!

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