Declining Bird Populations
In 1970, the bird population of the United States was around 10 billion. Today there are 7 billion, and each year we lose between 500 million to 1 billion more, to anthropogenic, or man-made, causes. According to the Cornell Lab for Ornithology in their landmark 2019 report on the drastic decline in bird species, the situation “can result in compositional and functional changes of ecosystems.” Without a regular population, the natural balance in ecosystems becomes unsustainable, and the extinctions of species begin. The Cornell report states that birds act as an accurate barometer for ecological health at large, given how easy it is to track them, and their populations—spread across the whole United States. New Mexico in particular supports a great diversity of bird species, behind only Texas and California, thanks to our state’s grasslands, forests, arid deserts, and alpine areas. Unfortunately, the southwest has also seen the loss of 42% of our wintering migratory birds over the past 40 years.
Ripple effects from the absence of birds are seen in many ways. Birds play a crucial role in pollinating plants. Combined with the plummeting butterfly and bee populations, flowers become more rare and the fauna that depend on them for sustenance likewise suffer. The loss of birds disrupts the food chain, as smaller birds act as efficient pest control against insects. At the time of this writing, the Santa Fe National Forest is in flames, and smoke is spreading across the state because insect-infested timbers are burning like matchboxes. With no woodpeckers and other insect-eating avians to control their population, wildfire is another threat that may become even more common in the future. Larger birds prey upon rodents that otherwise devour our gardens, chew through our car wires, and spread diseases. Unchecked rodent populations have historically been a plague upon humans, caused by the lack of predators.
Cats, windmills, cars: what’s killing the birds?
In 2020, New Mexico witnessed one of the largest mass die-offs of birds in recent memory. Thousands of migratory birds suddenly and unexpectedly died. The cause of these deaths was an early cold snap that killed a primary food source for them—insects. In fact, insect populations have been on the decline, losing a quarter of their total world population in 30 years. Pesticide use is the driving force behind most of these avian deaths, with changing climates accounting for a majority of the rest. Indeed, pesticides are also one of the top killers of birds in the US.
In a study published by Wallace P. Erickson, et al., 2005, the various anthropogenic causes of bird deaths were analyzed and calculated to find the worst offenders. By far the deadliest obstacle for birds is buildings, accounting for 550 million fatal collisions and making up 58% of total bird deaths. Power lines come next, electrocuting around 130 million birds annually. Cats are close behind, killing 100 million birds, in what the authors stress is a very conservative estimate. Automobiles take the fourth spot, comprising 80 million deaths, followed by pesticides, which poison 67 million birds per year. Wind turbines, airplanes, and communication towers collectively account for less than 1% of annual bird deaths.
Seven Steps to Help Save Birds
These tips come courtesy of the Cornell Lab for Ornithology
- Make windows safer for birds by breaking up their reflections. Vertical lines spaced 2” apart will prevent songbirds and hummingbirds from crashing. You can hang cloth strips, prayer flags, or turn your window into an art project with non-toxic tempera paint. If you’re not feeling crafty, you can buy bird decals or install an insect screen in front of your window.
- Keep cats indoors all the time. If you’re concerned about your feline not getting enough fresh air, build a small “catio” for them, buy a cat-bubble backpack for hiking trips, and see how your cat responds to a harness. It can take most cats some getting used to, but taking your cat on a hike gives it great exercise without harming the local fauna.
- Uproot your lawn and plant native shrubs and trees. Lawns are, frankly, a waste of water and time. They don’t produce any food, and the little shelter they do provide to insects is mitigated by the constant maintenance they require. Replace your lawn with native shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter for birds and other native wildlife. The Audubon Society has a handy service to find native plant life beneficial to birds, listed by zip code. Some recommendations for us in 87556 are American Plum, Big Sagebrush, Sunflowers, and Golden Currant. Aspens and evergreens give year-round shelter to birds, if you have room for one.
- Avoid using pesticides and buying pesticide-treated foods. The irony of pesticide use is their inadvertent destruction of one of nature’s best pest controllers—birds—by poisoning them and removing their food source. Consider natural pest control measures, such as ladybugs and lizards, or use organic pesticides.
- Drink shade-grown coffee. The coffee industry is rife with child labor, slavery, and the destruction of forests. Three-quarters of coffee farms grow their beans in the sun, cutting down the habitats for birds and other wildlife in doing so. By choosing fair-trade coffee grown in the shade, you’ll be helping coffee farmers and 42 species of North American migratory birds that winter in coffee plantations. [And you will taste the difference!]
- Avoid using single-use plastic. Use reusable containers instead, and try to avoid plastic in general, as it leaches toxic PFAs into your body and the world around you. PFAs cause cancers, lower reproductive potential, and induce weight gain, and that’s just in humans.
- Watch birds and report your findings. As stated above, birds are such an excellent barometer for the health of the planet as a whole because of how easy it is to track them. When you go birding, report your findings to scientists using the eBird app, or join a project like Feeder Watch or Breeding Bird Survey. By informing the people who study birds’ migrations and lifecycles, we will better understand how to map out future population trajectories.
Bryce Flanagan moved from
Sacramento, CA to Taos County in 2016, and has lived in Questa for two years. He’s passionate about the unique and beautiful wildlife of our state and is a regular contributor to the Questa Del Rio News.