Dramatic Decline in Bird Numbers in North America

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's new study documents widespread decline in bird numbers.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s new study documents widespread decline in bird numbers.

“If you were alive in 1970, more than one in four birds have disappeared in your lifetime.”  So begins a Cornell Chronicle article about a new study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  That loss represents about three billion birds, across the US and Canada and across all biomes. Researchers examined decades of data on 529 species and found massive declines (53% loss) in the numbers of grasslands birds as well as big drops (37%) in shorebirds. As Ken Rosenberg, lead author of the study said, “It’s a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

On the heels of stories about a potential “insect apocalypse,” the Cornell study is another reason for concern. Both birds and bugs play key roles in the health and sustainability of ecosystems. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, birds can be indicators of the condition of our world. Habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, building strikes and outdoor hunting by domestic and feral cats seem to be the main causes of this startling decline in the numbers of birds.

While the data and its implications ought to worry everyone, photographers have added reasons for anxiety as both birds and insects are favorite subjects of ours. The conservation of lands and species have been important goals of NANPA from its very beginning and are even more relevant today. In the last year, NANPA’s Conservation Committee released a Conservation Photography Handbook, available in the Members’ Area of the NANPA website and a new Conservation category was added to NANPA’s Showcase Competition. It’s too late to enter this year’s Showcase, but never too early to shoot the prize-winning bird or conservation photo for next year.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests seven things anyone can do to help birds.  They range from window decals and keeping cats indoors to planting native species and doing citizen science. As photographers, we can make a difference, too. In fact, we’re well placed to make an impact.

First, let’s be sure we’re following best practices in our wildlife photography.  NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practice spell out how to safely and ethically photograph animals without stressing or endangering them.  Let’s lead by example.

Next, we can use our photographs to educate.  Our images make people aware of the rare and magnificent birds they don’t see around town as well as the beauty of the ordinary birds in their back yards.  Every time we speak or exhibit, Instagram or Facebook, teach a workshop or share our photos with friends is an opportunity to educate. We have to learn a lot about birds in order to effectively photograph them so why not share that knowledge along with our photos.

Finally, we can document with our photos.  We can participate in citizen science initiatives. In fact, NANPA has a list of citizen science projects across the country that need photographers.

While the decline in bird numbers is worrying, we’ve managed to turn things around before. Bald Eagles are thriving, thanks to conservation efforts and a ban on DDT. Waterfowl are another success story, with increasing numbers due to a variety of conservation initiatives, from governments to hunters. Rosenberg sums it up:  “I don’t think any of these really major declines are hopeless at this point. But that may not be true 10 years from now.”