Conservation Column: How Can We Do a Better Job of Protecting Birds?

An article published in the journal Science this month revealed that bird populations in North America have declined by 29 percent since 1970. That’s a loss of about 3 billion birds! These population declines were documented in common bird species as well as species of concern. Indeed, people in our community have been contacting Lane County Audubon for years with concerns about the disappearance of many favorite backyard birds. Unfortunately, the study actually provides what is surely a conservative estimate of loss over time, in that it measured abundance since the 1970s, a period in which most native bird populations had already suffered steep declines. 

Birds disappeared from grassland and forest habitat at the highest rates. Bird families hit the hardest are sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, including Oregon’s state bird, the Western Meadowlark. Several recent scientific reports have provided comparable evidence including a United Nations assessment this spring that documented unprecedented global rates of biodiversity loss, indicating 1 million species at risk of extinction. 

The disappearance of one in four birds in a mere 50 years should be a wake-up call for all of us. In addition to being fascinating and beautiful, birds are an important part of ecosystems, playing critical roles in food webs and providing services such as pollination, seed dissemination, and insect control. Birds act as indicators of environmental health; we share their fate. It’s all too easy, when problems reach crisis proportions, to bury our heads in the sand (ostriches don’t actually do that). Instead, let’s focus on solutions. As a community, we can unite in our efforts.

We are able to identify the main causes of bird decline: habitat loss, overuse of pesticides, climate change, and other human-caused hazards. We can address sources of direct human-caused mortality, such as collisions with buildings. Birds simply don’t see glass as solid objects and are harmed when they attempt to fly through or land on reflections of vegetation in windows. We can use screen covers, closely spaced decals, or strings that hang over our windows. We can ask that new construction include fritted glass or special UV-reflecting glass to makes windows more visible to birds.

Lights in residential areas attract and disorient migrating birds. We can turn off unnecessary lights and use window coverings. Outdoor lights can be shielded and directed downward. 

Several studies have indicated that outdoor cats are one of the largest sources of mortality for birds and other native wildlife. Cats should be kept indoors most of the time, and closely supervised when outside. It’s a win-win given that, on average, indoor cats live longer and healthier lives. 

In our yards, let’s replace lawns when possible with vegetation that supports birds. Garden with a diversity of native plants for birds and for pollinators. Don’t poison the birds and the food that they rely upon. Avoid the use of chemical pesticides, rodenticides, and herbicides. Keep your gardens a little untidy; brush piles and snags support birds. 

Consumer choices matter. We can decrease meat consumption and eat a more plant-based diet to reduce the destruction of habitat everywhere and to reduce greenhouse gases. Encourage hunters to use non-lead ammunition. Birds are poisoned by lead shot when they scavenge carcasses. When possible, eat organic food and purchase shade-grown coffee and cacao. This form of agriculture has been shown to support a greater abundance and diversity of birds. Reduce the use of plastics, especially one-time-use disposables, which find their way into the digestive tracts of birds and other animals. 

We are fortunate in Oregon to have a diversity of ecosystems including some intact forests. Conserving forest habitat helps provide resources for struggling populations, while doubling as a natural solution for the reduction of atmospheric carbon that contributes to an unstable climate. 

Let your representatives know that you value public lands for the habitats they afford, and that you support bedrock environmental laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and The Endangered Species Act. Support action to improve energy-efficiency in the transportation, industrial, and housing sectors. Demand policies that implement climate solutions. And vote! 

Finally, bring friends and family outside to enjoy the splendor of birds. Let’s take action right now to ensure that our youth get to enjoy birds in the future.