The State We’re In 10/11: Massive bird losses should be ‘a rallying call to action’

By Michele S. Byers

Bird watchers all over New Jersey have been feeling something amiss.

“I see lots of backyard birds like cardinals and robins, but I have to search harder to find birds that thrive in more natural habitats,” says Dr. Emile DeVito, staff biologist at New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “The birds are all still out there, but not in the numbers I remember in the 1970s, when trees were dripping with birds.”

Unfortunately, these gut feelings about diminishing birds have been verified.  A groundbreaking new study published in the journal, “Science,” has concluded that North America’s bird population has shrunk by nearly 3 billion in the past half-century. That means there are 25% fewer birds alive today in the United States and Canada than there were in 1970.

“We were astounded by this net loss across all birds on our continent,” said Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led an international team in analyzing population trends for 529 bird species. The bird losses, Rosenberg added, are “a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.”

According to the study, grassland birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks were the hardest hit, with a 53% loss in population over the past 50 years. Shorebirds like sandpipers lost 37% of their population. Eastern forest birds lost about 17% of their population, and losses of Western forest birds, boreal forest birds and Arctic tundra birds were higher.

These losses can be blamed on many factors: insecticides, climate change, invasive species and destructive land use practices throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The study is sobering, but Eric Stiles, New Jersey Audubon Society president and CEO, hopes birders and nature enthusiasts will view it as “a rallying call to action” rather than a reason to give up.

Stiles points out that many laws and programs that help birds were passed in the past five decades, including the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the ban on DDT, and New Jersey’s Highlands and Pinelands Acts.

“If we didn’t take these actions in the past 50 years, things would be a heck of a lot worse,” Stiles said.

He explained that two raptors found in New Jersey – bald eagles and peregrine falcons – are rebounding and show that recovery is possible. The insecticide DDT, now banned, had caused their eggs to become too thin to successfully hatch.

Conservation projects in New Jersey, Eric added, have helped stabilize the threatened sandpipers known as red knots. These long-distance migrants, which fly from the tip of South America to the Arctic, depend on a critical spring stopover at New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs. A ban on horseshoe crab harvests helped halt the steep decline in the red knot population. And the preservation of 90% of the New Jersey land fronting on the Delaware Bay may help lead to their eventual recovery to their former abundance.

But more conservation efforts are needed, especially for forest birds. According to the “Science” study, 90% of forest birds in the U.S. and Canada declined in the past 50 years.

Eric noted that scarlet tanagers are an example of New Jersey forest birds whose populations have dropped. To help scarlet tanagers and other forest birds, he said, “We need to protect and steward the forests we have and restore areas without trees.”

Want to help birds? Here are some things you can do:

  • Support land conservation. Every time a forest, a meadow or a stream corridor is permanently preserved, birds have places to feed, nest and rest. An excellent example is the preserved grassland surrounding the Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County that provide great bird habitat for grassland birds.
  • Plant natives. Replace all or part of your lawn with native plants, which attract the insects that birds need to survive. “Landscape your yard for wildlife,” advises Stiles. “Turn your chemical cocktail lawn into pollinator meadow.”
  • Purchase organic. Steer clear of foods grown with neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that are highly toxic to birds and insects.
  • Reduce plastics. Avoid single-use plastics, like plastic grocery bags, food containers, straws and utensils. More than 90% of plastics are not recycled, and they take centuries to degrade. Seabirds are among the birds most at risk of ingesting plastics in the environment.
  • Control house cats. Even well-fed cats can become bird predators when allowed to roam. If your cat likes the outdoors, consider building a screened enclosure, or “catio.”
  • Drink bird-friendly coffee. Look for java that is certified bird-friendly; it’s grown in the shade and doesn’t require the destruction of forest habitats.
  • Volunteer. Serve on your town’s open space committee or environmental commission, or donate your time to one of the many nonprofits that conserve and restore New Jersey’s wildlife habitats.
  • Become a citizen scientist. If you’re a birder, be sure to share your sightings on the eBird online portal. Your data adds to the “big picture” of bird populations and movements. New Jersey Audubon has a citizen science program you can join.

To learn more about New Jersey birds – and New Jersey Audubon’s volunteer and citizen science programs – go to https://njaudubon.org/.

To learn more about the bird study, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/bring-birds-back.

To visit the eBird portal, go to https://ebird.org/home. Not only can you contribute data, you can also check for bird sightings in your area or search for a particular species.

And to learn about preserving land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.