The Great Avian Die-Off: Two Reports Point to Grim Future for US Birds

Eastern meadowlark.Eastern meadowlark. (Photo: keeva999 )Billions to None

Many Americans living today cannot conceive just how innumerable the passenger pigeon was. Until the late 19th century, the species’ numbers were biblical in proportions. It flew in flocks up to a billion strong, stretching for hundreds of miles and blackening the sky with its immensity. For people living at the time, the prospect of such a creature becoming extinct would probably have been equally hard to conceive.

But it happened.

In September 1914 – a hundred years ago this September – the last passenger pigeon died in captivity in Cincinnati. The last confirmed wild passenger pigeons were shot down over a decade earlier, in 1902. Over the course of several decades, a creature that once comprised up to 40 percent of the continental bird population ceased to be.

Common bird species nowadays face a similar fate – over half of them, in fact, could end up like the passenger pigeon.

Two September reports tell a dark tale about the future of North American avian species. The State of the Birds 2014 report and the Audubon Society’s Climate Report enumerate the ongoing problems contributing to a precipitous decline in bird populations across the United States. From irresponsible management of private land to climate change, these reports draw a connection between the fate of birds and the overall well-being of the environment. Their findings – in conjunction with previous research connecting chemical contamination with declining bird populations – foretell a bleak, parallel future for humanity.

Industrial Agriculture and Development Up, Meadowlarks and Bobolinks Down

Around half of US bird populations live on private land. This reality complicates the effective management and regulation of essential living spaces for habitat obligates (non-migratory birds that live exclusively in one environment). When Big Ag and private developers buy up and ravage large swaths of land, habitat obligates face a permanent loss of living space. Conservation is thus paramount for ensuring these birds’ future.

As the State of the Birds report discusses, however, destructive practices continue unabated. Common avian species, including the meadowlark and bobolink, are witnessing the destruction of their habitats as family farms give way to industrial agriculture and suburbs continue to stretch their tentacles into hitherto untouched grasslands. Similarly, birds of the western Great Plains – such as the Sprague’s pipit and chestnut-collared longspur – are threatened by overgrazing and industrial farm expansion. Arid lands have seen a 46 percent population drop in 17 different species since 1968 due to unsustainable land use and energy development. The report lists 230 different birds facing endangerment due largely to these development and land use trends.

Climate Change: Birds Can Only Fly So Far North

As the oceans grow warmer, the ice caps melt and governments continue to kick the climate change can down the road, birds are gradually being pushed out of their climatic ranges. The Audubon Society’s Climate Report explains that global warming poses an existential threat to the nation’s birds. Using the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the report outlines the “climatic suitability” (i.e., where a bird can survive in summer and winter) for individual species. The report compares this information to internationally recognized projections of climate change scenarios to detail how the climatic zone of each species will change with increasing temperatures.

The report states that 76 birds face “severe declines” by 2050, and that more than half of US bird species will witness a 50 percent loss of their climatic range by 2080. The American bald eagle is expected to lose 73 percent of its breeding ground by 2080. Minnesota can expect the loon – an iconic presence in the state – to disappear in the same time period. There is only so much landmass for birds to thrive in, and as the number of habitable territories shrink and drift farther north, birds will have no place to go.

What Dying Birds Mean for the Environment – and Humanity

Birds are a meaningful barometer for the general health of an ecosystem. They are high up on the food chain, meaning that contamination at the bottom will travel its way up the ladder. In Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the author connected the transference of the pesticide DDT between the insects it was meant to destroy and the animals that ate them. By the 1980s, academic research gave birth to the theory of the “endocrine disruptor”: the idea that chemicals – including the pesticide DDT and industrial chemicals, such as PCBs – were spreading throughout ecosystems and interfering with the normal function of birds’ endocrine systems, significantly limiting their hormone production and debilitating their reproduction cycles.

Research has shown the negative effects of other chemicals on avian species: Mercury has not only stunted reproductive abilities in certain birds, but has actually altered birds’ songs due to neurological damage; a single kernel of corn contaminated with neonicotinoids (insecticides that are widely used and minimally regulated) is enough to kill songbirds. The pervasiveness of human-made chemicals in the natural world manifests in these cases, and points to potential harm caused to other wildlife – including human beings. Studies have linked DDT and PCBs to neurological damage in humans, as well as to prostate and breast cancers. At the top of the food chain, people can expect chemical pollution to affect them adversely as it does predatory birds.

The consequences of irresponsible land use and climate change will also affect more creatures than birds. Overdevelopment will lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems, along with the biodiversity that makes them work. While global warming accelerates, island nations will battle the ocean level’s rise and coastal cities will be battered by superstorms. Climate change is beginning to displace people, just as it has begun to displace birds by the gradual destruction of their environments.

Humanity must see itself – and its fate – in the destruction of the natural world. While ensuring the future of humanity is a hugely important task, so too is the moral responsibility to cease the crimes committed against the natural world and to rectify the damages already wrought.