You don’t have to be an ornithologist — or even an avid bird watcher — to have been unsurprised by a recent report on the dramatically diminishing bird populations in North America. Alarmed by the numbers, yes. Understandably so. But not surprised by the trend.
Those who can remember what it was like to spend time outdoors at least a decade ago might recall birds’ songs, chirping and calling. You might have looked forward to spotting the first robin, indicating spring was on the way. You might have fed pigeons à la Mary Poppins. Those sounds and sights aren’t so easy to come by anymore.
But even newcomers to the Lowcountry can make an educated assumption that the number and variety of birds have changed due to the changing landscape. Trees are removed to make room for buildings in urban, suburban and rural areas. And in areas where farms have grown, so has the use of pesticides, killing what is a menace to crops but a source of food for birds. Artificial light at night in cities and suburbs disorients birds. Birds crash into tall buildings and die.
Bird counts by the U.S. Geological Survey show that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds — almost 30 percent of its bird population — over the past five decades. In South Carolina, people counting breeding birds along a route that includes Walterboro have seen drops in several species. In 1977, they spotted 28 northern bobwhites, compared to two in 2017. The number of mourning doves dropped from 51 to 24, yellow-billed cuckoos from 11 to zero, purple martins from 23 to 6, house sparrows from 14 to zero, and painted buntings from 16 to four.
They also saw increases. They spotted no turkey vultures in 1977, but 21 in 2017. The number of blue-gray gnatcatchers increased from two to 38 and the Carolina chickadee from six to 22.
Data show that programs to protect birds can be very effective.
Wetland birds have benefited from programs promoted by hunting groups. In the Walterboro route count, not one Canada goose was seen in 1977. Eight were spotted in 2017. Prohibition of DDT has helped raptors rebound. Those counters saw no Mississippi kites in 1977 and seven in 2017.
Songbirds, wetland birds and birds of prey all play important roles in the ecosystem. Conserving them should be an objective of all regulatory agencies. Local and state officials should be analyzing bird populations and considering how their public policies are helping or hurting. Certainly, the public has provided lots of reasons to control suburban sprawl and overdevelopment, from air pollution emanating from lengthier automobile travel to flooding. A more comprehensive approach would consider wildlife as well. We wisely limit lights on beachfronts where turtles nest. What about lights where birds nest?
Experts say that the profound loss of birds across the U.S. and Canada is not an extinction crisis — yet. But it’s easy to see what happens when you don’t address a problem until it becomes a crisis. The warming climate and resulting sea level rise are an example to which the Lowcountry can relate.
Academics and scientists, government officials, conservationists and birders should put their heads together. Our birds are disappearing. It’s time to do something about it.