Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Study Tracks Massive Loss of Birdlife Since 1970

bird decline chartA study published in the journal Science reveals that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds, signaling what has been considered a widespread ecological crisis.

The results show tremendous losses across diverse groups of birds and habitats — from iconic songbirds such as meadowlarks to long-distance migrants such as swallows, and backyard birds such as sparrows. More research is needed to pinpoint primary causes for declines in individual species.

“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” said Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy in an announcement of the research. “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.”

The study calls birds indicators of environmental health, and says they are signaling that natural systems across the U.S. and Canada are now being so severely impacted by human activities that they no longer support the same robust wildlife populations.

The findings show that of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90 percent belong to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows — common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control.

Among the steep declines noted:

  • grassland birds graphicGrassland birds, such as those found in the Washington County Grasslands, are especially hard hit, with a 53-percent reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970.
  • Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats such as are found where the Great and Little Chazy Rivers empty into Lake Champlain, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population.
  • The volume of spring migration, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14 percent in just the past decade.

“These data are consistent with what we’re seeing elsewhere with other taxa showing massive declines, including insects and amphibians,” said coauthor 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.

The studies authors say evidence for the declines emerged from detection of migratory birds in the air from 143 NEXRAD weather radar stations across the continent in a period spanning over 10 years, as well as from nearly 50 years of data collected through multiple monitoring efforts on the ground.

The analysis included citizen-science data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey coordinated by the USGS and the Canadian Wildlife Service — the main sources of long-term, large-scale population data for North American birds — the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and Manomet’s International Shorebird Survey.

Although the study did not analyze the causes of declines, it noted that the steep drop in North American birds parallels the losses of birds elsewhere in the world, suggesting multiple interacting causes that reduce breeding success and increase mortality. It says that the largest factor driving these declines is likely the widespread loss and degradation of habitat, especially due to agricultural intensification and urbanization.

Other studies have documented mortality from predation by free-roaming domestic cats; collisions with glass, buildings, and other structures; and pervasive use of pesticides associated with widespread declines in insects, an essential food source for birds.

waterfowl graphicClimate change is expected to compound these challenges by altering habitats and threatening plant communities that birds need to survive. A recent study found loss of wintering habitat in the near future will likely be magnified by the long-term effects of climate change. Another found that by the middle of the next century migratory bird populations will experience novel climates during all phases of their annual life cycles.

The study also documents a few promising rebounds resulting from human efforts. Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) have made a recovery over the past 50 years, made possible by investments in conservation by hunters and billions of dollars of government funding for wetland protection and restoration. Raptors such as the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon have also made comebacks since the 1970s, after the harmful pesticide DDT was banned and recovery efforts through endangered species legislation in the U.S. and Canada provided protection.

Images provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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40 Responses

  1. Christine hildebrand says:

    I believe the severity of hurricanes in the Caribbean Islands, our Gulf Coast and the Yucatan Peninsula has caused the loss of tens of thousands of our migratory song birds as well as endemic species. After Hurricane Wilma finally left Cozumel after 72 hours in 2005, they were bulldozing up piles of birds, mammals and reptiles like Iguanas, piles several feet high. Many of our warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles and many others were already in their winter homes when that hurricane hit at the end of October. At least one of the endemics, the Cozumel Thrasher has not been seen since the storm. There have been so many other serious hurricanes since then, and we know the severity and frequency is a result of climate change and will continue to get worse. Besides the direct loss of wild life from the storms, the habitats temporarily lost, also contribute to severe harm.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      Your comment is ridiculous. See below.

      • Christine hildebrand says:

        Sorry if you thought I meant that storms in the tropics was the only cause with loss of birds and loss of habitat. All are part of the big problem, including all the many comments made by others.

  2. Chuck Parker says:

    The lost of bird life in the Adirondack Park Region can also be attributed to the loss of transitional forest lands and the corresponding suitable habitat for birds and mammals. I suspect that the loss of transitional habitat is the major cause for the loss of “birdlife”. We are seeing more mature forest, under the Forever Wild Doctrine in the Adirondacks. We have lost the ecological balance in the Adirondack Park. The management or I should say non balanced management principles based on Forever Wild has run it’s course and needs a major update.

    • Ryan Finnigan says:

      Don’t be disingenuous. More than half of the Adirondack Park is in private hands and much of that is owned and managed by large timber interests. There is plenty of transitional forest on those lands. Why did you neglect to mention that fact?

      • John Warren says:

        Chuck Parker is President of the New York State Conservation Council. It wasn’t always so, but NSCC is now a fairly right wing hunting and fishing group that uses conservation science to promote logging and development and pushes for lowering the hunting age to ten, supporting trapping, etc.

        • Balian the Cat says:

          Don’t forget their constant push to increase motorized access to every corner of the forest under the pretense that getting older and being uninterested in living a healthy lifestyle constitutes a hardship.

          • Chuck Parker says:

            I don’t think I am being disingenuous. It is my position those that manage our public lands should have a balanced approach of the lands they control. Sadly this is not the case.

          • Chuck Parker says:

            Every corner now that is a bit of an exaggeration. Where ever appropriate and legal and where there is seen no negative impact is along my line of thinking. I think if you check some of the regulations that the Adirondacks fall under what I propose is permissible and just falls under good judgement.

        • JohnL says:

          “NSCC is now a fairly right wing hunting and fishing group, etc, etc” And you John, are ‘fairly left wing’ and push for left wing agendas. In fact, whether we acknowledge it or not, everybody has an agenda. What’s your point?

          • John Warren says:

            Part of my job is to let people know where their information comes from.

            • JohnL says:

              A simple “Chuck Parker is President of the New York State Conservation Council” wouldn’t suffice?? Was it necessary for you to add your opinion that they are a ‘fairly right wing etc etc’. Are we, your readers, not smart enough to figure things out for ourselves without your ‘help’. Just askin’. JohnL out!

              • John Warren says:

                No it wouldn’t. When you’ve been in journalism for 35 years and founded and run the most widely read publication about the Adirondacks, you’ll better understand why.

                As far as our readers being smart enough to figure it out for themselves, many are. Others believe climate change is a hoax, DEC is secretly introducing big cats, there is no access to state lands, cutting down trees is actually saving the forest, snowmobilers are keeping the Adirondack economy going, the forest preserve is making people move out the park, and other simply crazy ideas that make any serious person question the ability of many of our commenters to assess facts and draw coherent conclusions.

                Bottom line, it’s relevant and informative and that’s my job. We’re not going to have the Trump model here, where you just keep adding lies and obfuscations that are designed to benefit yourself until one sticks.

                John Warren
                Editor, Adirondack Almanack
                [see how easy that was?]

                • JohnL says:

                  Wow. The most widely read publication about the Adirondacks! Look out New York Times. John’s on the move. To speed things up, maybe you could just change whatever we send in until it suits YOUR narrative. That would not only speed things up but help me in my never ending quest to be more like you.

                  • John Warren says:

                    Is the New York Times about the Adirondacks? No, it’s not. They occasionally cover it, usually in the travel section.

                    Yes, providing folks like you with an opportunity to have your voice heard was always a goal, you’re welcome.

                    You can’t be like me, no point in trying, lol.

                • Suzanne says:

                  Thanks, John, for your job well done. Now I’ll be sending in my payment for the print subscription.

            • Boreas says:


              Many of us appreciate your work and AA – and some even donate regularly. Others simply use it as a free platform to promote their contrary agendas. Most regular readers/commenters get the lay of the land fairly quickly, but occasional or new readers may not. Those readers may appreciate your occasionally shedding light on various agendas cropping up in the threads. This may give them an education on some of the deep divisions among us. Keep up the good work!

  3. Tammy says:

    One attributing factor to bird mortality rates within the ADKs is the ever increasing number of wires (internet, tv cable, phone & electrical) traversing flyways used by waterfowl. Nothing more heartbreaking than finding dead loons after striking these suspension wires! These wires also impact other species of birds. If birds are lucky enough not to strike or become entangled in these wires/cables I have also observed Ospreys, Bald Eagles and herons give up hunting for pray while trying to navigate these ever increasing suspended wires. Has any one seen the Webb Property Owners Association and Frontier Communication’s survey printed in the local newspaper asking for support so as to expand more cable connections within the ADK Park!

  4. Paul says:

    Wait outdoor cats in the US kill this many birds each year?

  5. Dan says:

    A few notes about this study that I picked up on:
    – It mirrors similar problems in other parts of the world, not just the U.S. and North America.
    -It points to many possible causes including pesticides, glass buildings, (yes) cats and climate change.
    -There is good news. and that is waterfowl populations have rebounded in the past 50 years thanks to habitat preservation and hunter conservation dollars. Raptors too have rebounded since DDT was banned.

  6. Tim-brunswick says:

    Forget about who/what Chuck Parker is….he’s on the money!

    The fact that someone may be a hiker, biker, trapper, hunter,. angler doesn’t have a darn thing to do with the facts. To wit:

    There is far less wildlife in an unbroken wilderness setting than that which is broken up and/or intersperse with patches of open area ( i.e. new/old beaver meadows).

    Take a look at the big push within NYSDEC over the past 8 to 10 years labeled “The Young Forest Initiative” in wildlife management areas across the State…., which is specifically designed to open up the forest canopy, let the sunlight in so to speak and grasses, etc. The majority of wildlife need new growth/food and you don’t get that with an unbroken mature forest!

    For the record…I’m a hiker, paddler, trapper, hunter, angler

    • terry says:

      So if we follow your thought, before European settlement the east coast was heavily forested, and there was less bird life.

      • John Warren says:

        Which would be completely false.

        • Chuck Parker says:

          May I suggest that you reference Nature Wars by Jim Sterba. While it centers around “Wildlife Comebacks” and backyard conflicts, This book would seem to support that there was indeed less wildlife which would include birds before and during the first part of colonial times. You don’t have the proper habitat for a desired species you will not have that desired species. It is all about the balance. Tim’s remarks are not completely false as a previous commenter stated. Actually they were well stated

          • Balian the Cat says:


            I think it’s important to be transparent here. You want to manage for “desired species” so you can shoot them. It’s important to acknowledge that that there are other perspectives where wildlife management is considered – including one which doesn’t see it as our place to “manage” anything.

            • Chuck Parker says:

              Balian, You are not being fair in your assessment of the sporting community. Yes I hunt, fish, and have trapped in the past. All ethical activities, and often a major management tool. It may sound odd to you but it is a fact that the money and support for wise conservation by sportsmen has done more for wildlife and our forest lands than just about any groups I can think of over the years. The Governor has recognized in one of his budget speeches that the outdoor sportsmen contributes over 12 billion dollars a year to the NYS economy in activities related to the sportsmen activities (food, lodging, travel, clothing, etc). Sportsmen, have work along side by side with organizations such as Audubon and the Nature Conservancy on such issues as feral cats, mute swans, invasive species, and land acquisitions. Do we agree on everything? No. Do we agree on a health environment and sound conservation you bet. Do you know that there are those in the above mentioned organizations that hunt and fish, and some actually trap. Do you know that sportsmen enjoy seeing different song birds and other protected species in the outdoors. It is a sign of a healthy and balanced environment. Beside it is hard eating those little birds without the feathers getting stuck between your teeth (humor intended). Lack of proper management will lead to nothing to manage.

              • Balian the Cat says:


                I agree that some of the quick / general statements that I make on public comment boards miss the mark but Yes, I understand the sportsman. I do not vilify all the activities you mention (I will be honest and say that I believe trapping, for any reason other than survival, is a cruel and archaic relic of the past) and participate in most of them myself – but, to use your parlance: Do you know that an anthropocentric viewpoint is not the only way to look at life on earth? Do you realize that forms of life other than human have intrinsic value and that “managing” them could be viewed as short sighted. Most natural processes developed with no help from “us” and behave the way they do for a reason. It isn’t necessary for humans to constantly dicker with nature so that it appears the way we want it to.

    • Boreas says:

      How are we defining “wildlife”? Bambi and Thumper? The Pacific NW was once a large ecosystem of species unique to that environment before it was decimated.
      Rain forests? Ditto. If we only look at Bambi and Thumper, then you may have a case, but there are a multitude of plant, invertebrate, vertebrate, and microbial wildlife in these old-growth habitats – many that have never been documented! We should be cautious about considering large areas of mature or climax forest as being wasteland just because Bambi and Thumper no longer live there. Other species will rapidly fill those niches.There are many habitat specialists that ONLY live in unbroken mature forest. Should we ignore them simply to see the species WE want to hunt and trap?

      There is no shortage of transitional forest and open areas. Every human development opens up the canopy and in bound Bambi and Thumper without effective predators. If the predators come as well, we then complain about FiFi and Fido’s safety as well as the natural control of prey.

      Don’t forget, within the Park, mountains alone provide many different habitats based simply on elevation, precipitation, and soil types. They are not all suitable for Bambi and Thumper. Elsewhere, logging, fire, storms, disease, and beaver are just a few of the forces that have the ability to change the landscape and its inhabitants. Why not sit back and let them work? Bambi and Thumper are not in danger of extinction.

  7. Robert DiMarco says:

    Please let’s start calling what the major part of the problem is. Too many people. How can we Keep building more roads, houses, airports etc. Continual growth might be good For The pocketbook but it isn’t good For The Earth.

  8. Norm Hatch says:

    Has anyone noticed the loss of swallows since the DEC began treating the streams for black flies? We used to see flocks of swallows circulating overhead, eating the black flies. I haven’t seen a swallow in years, and I attribute it to the lower population of black flies in the Adirondacks. It’s nice to be without the flies, but when man changes the balance of nature, there are unintended consequences.

    • Boreas says:


      Many Swallow species are significantly lower than 10 years ago. But this is true as well in areas with few black flies. Many scientists feel one of the main causes of the recent drop is simply fewer insects across many species. Windows, wires, cats, habitat loss, etc. – things we have known about for a long time – are really nothing new. Many people feel the only thing that is different are increasingly lethal insecticides and herbicides and their widespread use both in bird breeding and overwintering areas.

    • Adirondacker says:

      Norm Hatch – DEC doesn’t treat streams for black flies (Bacillus thuringiensis [Bt]). Towns do.

  9. Todd Eastman says:

    This study describes changes in bird populations across the US and Canada…

    … nothing specifies conditions within the Adirondack Park. ?

  10. Tammy says:

    Sorry for the pun but this study is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Nothing like a hungry human! Humans only know how to do two things well throughout history. Either love things to death or exploit. Our species is sending Earth and the inevitable tourist trap known as the Adirondack Park towards the sixth extension.

  11. Boreas says:

    Humans are currently being presented with the challenges involved with studying extinction rates in real time. We have a rough idea of what “background” extinction rates have been in relatively recent geological time frames. Even the most famous five “mass extinctions” in the past are clouded in uncertainty. What we have to realize about past extinctions is that most of our ideas and theories – right or wrong – are based on fossil, ice core samples, rock analysis, and other hard (no pun intended) evidence from the past. When it comes to data from “softer” terrestrial and ocean invertebrates, insects, microbes, environmental chemicals, and other environmental and extraterrestrial (solar emissions and cosmic radiation) things get really murky. Pinpointing cause and effect in real-time is prone to error, but this doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and blame it on the gods being angry.

    Our sources of data depend on independent scientists doing their job without pressure from politics and deep pockets with an agenda. The first step in truly understanding our world and environment is to get money out of politics and politics out of science. Until this is done, citizens of Earth will have great difficulty understanding our many current environmental issues (both obvious and hidden), let alone trying to ameliorate current extinction processes.

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