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#bioPGH Blog: What to Make of the Bird Decline Headlines
Sep 26

#bioPGH Blog: What to Make of the Bird Decline Headlines

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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Note: This will be a longer exploration than usual, but it’s a bigger topic than usual. Also, since the “doom and gloom” type headlines seem to be coming at us more frequently and with greater urgency, it is important that we truly to try to understand the real stories accompanying the issues. Resources for deeper learning are interwoven throughout the piece, and I hope you are able to find all the answers you need to dig into the situation.

Since this is the first week of fall, my original plan had been to write something cozy and perhaps a bit nostalgic—maybe a focus on pumpkins, squashes, apples, or something else seasonally and biologically relevant. However, many of you who regularly read this blog have undoubtedly seen the recent headlines covering last week’s paper in the journal Science: North America has lost three billion birds since 1970. This means that across the continent, our total bird population has dropped 29% in the last few decades (Rosenberg et al. 2019). With all of the attention on this article, though, what does this what does this mean and how can we help? This week, let’s explore a sobering topic in a bit more depth together.

The first question is where did those numbers come from? The researchers had to know many birds lived in North America in 1970 and how many we have seen until today: these numbers were estimated by using thirteen different long-term bird monitoring datasets to ensure accuracy. Some of the datasets were developed by government agencies (e.g., USFWS Breeding Waterfowl Surveys), some are international efforts (e.g. North American Breeding Bird Survey), and some included citizen science data produced by large groups of volunteers (e.g. the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count). Also, in a technological twist, the authors also used 143 weather radars from across the United States to estimate the mass of migrating birds. (Large flocks in flight are detectable to radar, even in remote areas where scientists have difficulty working in person.) Overall, the sheer volume of data involved in the study helped to ensure an accurate representation of past and present population numbers.

Now that we have a better idea of where these numbers came from, what does the data tell us? First, we learn that species that live in grassland habitats were the most heavily impacted in the past 50 years, with a net loss of 700 million individuals from 1970 population estimates. Across different forest types, such as boreal and temperate, the losses were still staggering with a combined loss of approximately one billion birds. On a positive note, wetland birds actually saw a net increase of 13% from the 1970’s. Overall, though, birds across our continent have faced challenges in the past five decades that they have not been able to overcome.

What are those challenges? one might ask, but it’s a multi-level question. One immediate answer is loss of habitat. As humans have spread out, we have either built over bird habitat, turned it into agricultural lands, or divided up the land into parcels too small or spaced out for birds to meaningfully use. We’ve also degraded habitat through pollution or destructive practices (not necessarily by building with towns and houses, but by damaging the land to the point that it cannot support healthy plant or wildlife populations.) In addition, climate change has exacerbated most aspects of bird ecology from the timing of migration, to habitat use, to food sources.

The loss is sad, but does it really matter to us? Yes, the loss of birds impacts us directly. Birds are valuable as pollinators, as seed-dispersers, as the carrion “clean-up crew,” as pest-eaters, and as sources of creative inspiration. Beyond the human-centric, view, though, birds play critical roles in their food webs, and their current decline is undoubtedly connected to the similar loss of insects and amphibians. There is no way to lose a single species without multiple others being impacted. And who are we to decide which species are worth saving and which are expendable?

We might also wonder if this national trend also applies to Pennsylvania birds. For that, I talked to Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist at the National Aviary, and an author on the last two rounds of Pennsylvania’s Breeding Bird Atlas, a major survey of birds in the state. He notes that overall, Pennsylvania actually saw an increase in bird numbers between the 1980’s and early 2000’s, though he noted the same categories of birds were on the decline in Pennsylvania as nationally. He also cautions that Pennsylvania’s two surveys covered 20 years, rather than the 47 covered by the Science study.

“Many of {biologists} have been aware for some time of declines in groups of birds, such as aerial insectivores, grassland birds, and obligate wetland species,” Mulvihill says.  “However, the current study opened all of our eyes even wider so that we can truly see what it is that we’ve lost.  When we speak of declines, that concept can seem fairly abstract, even to those of us in the bird business.  The Science study took a different tack, and it was a wake-up call for all of us—birders and non-birders, alike.  Three billion birds is just too many to ignore or dismiss!”

Notably, one question you have had about earlier mentioned wetland birds may be the key to helping all birds: why have wetland birds fared better than their non-wetland counterparts? The authors point out that there has actually been a tremendous effort to protect and restore wetland habitats in the past several decades. Many waterways have been maintained and cleaned (think about our own rivers!), and wetland function is recognized as an invaluable ecosystem service. In short, wetland birds have escaped this decline because through legislation and conservation, we have protected wetland birds; and those efforts paid off.

So what does this mean, and what we can we do? We are not powerless!

1.) Support organizations that protect birds, whether that is through volunteering or donating.

2.) Read up on the matter. Education is always key to understanding complex, multi-faceted issues. Be sure you are using trustworthy sources, and do some online digging!

3.) Contact your elected officials and let them know you care not just about birds but about our natural resources in general. Climate change impacts our world in ways we are still unraveling, and pollution and land mismanagement are not far behind in terms of impact.

4.) Keep your cats indoors. House cats roaming outdoors kill 764 million birds per year in the continental United States. That doesn’t even begin to cover the damage of feral cats. So keep Kitty indoors, and spay/neuter your cats to keep the number of unwanted cats down.

5.) If you caught the Dr. Steve Latta’s talk at our September Biophilia, he discussed the impacts of large-scale industrial agriculture on bird populations. As a consumer, we can make our voices heard by opting for locally produced food items, and opt for bird-safe products like coffees and chocolates when possible. And when you’re at the grocery store, ask about the products! Even if the staff don’t immediately have the answer, asking the questions lets them know that consumers care.

6.) Get involved in citizen science. The Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science project in the world and needs volunteers. Or, you can get involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project Nest Watch, Project Feeder Watch, or a Celebrate Urban Birds project.

7.) Look into options for your windows to prevent bird strikes. Bird Safe Pgh, through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a great local resource.

Thank you for sticking with me this long, and I hope you feel empowered to make your voice heard! If you have any other suggestions or idea for bird conservation, chime in in the comment section below.

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: Pittsburgh is great city for bird watching, and there are ample meaningful ways to get involved in bird monitoring, from the Aviary to the local Audubon to the CMNH’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. As Bob Mulvihill says, “We cannot do too much monitoring of our biota, and we cannot possibly monitor our biota at any meaningful scale without LOTS and LOTS of highly trained, dedicated, and magnanimous volunteers! 


Photo credits: Cover, USFWS, public domain; header, Tony Hisgett CC-BY-2.0


It’s worth mentioning I think that our desire to have a green, weedless and insect free lawn at our homes has created a posioned area for birds to eat, play and nest. Consider the type of poison you are putting on your yards and grounds the next time it’s time to treat

By Erie Lee W on Sep 27, 2019

well no matter what we want there is a fact birds must stay free out of the cage

By <a href= rel=”nofollow”> on Apr 1, 2020

i dont know if am mistaken i did think this website of phipps talk about fastest birds in the world or <a >animals</a> lol

By fernando miebo on Apr 1, 2020