In the late 19th century bird populations in the United States declined drastically. That was obvious. William T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, tried to quantify the bird losses. He published his numbers in 1899. The numbers varied state by state, from a low of 10 percent for Nebraska to a high of 77 percent for Florida. Hornaday estimated that Montana had lost 75 percent of its birds in the previous 15 years.
The average of Hornaday’s state estimates yielded an average 46 percent decline overall in the nation’s overall bird population from the 1880s. Experts of the day agreed that concrete action based on science was needed.
The nation responded accordingly. In 1900 Audubon societies began the annual Christmas Bird Survey, which involved citizens in the collection of scientific data. Some states passed the Model Bird Law prepared by the American Ornithological Union’s Committee on Bird Protection. President Theodore established the many national bird reservations (predecessors of national wildlife preserves).
The 1913 Federal Migratory Bird Law provided the first federal regulation of migratory bird hunting. The Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 provided additional protection for migratory birds, as well as their eggs, nests, and feathers.
Legislation was particularly effective, aided by public and private investments in conservation.
A new study published in the journal Science on Sept. 19 reveals that the bird population is crashing again. The authors studied over 500 species of breeding birds in the continental United States and Canada over the past 50 years. The authors concluded that North America has lost more than one in four of its birds since 1970.
Sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, finches, meadowlarks and other birds have declined in numbers. Even remote wilderness areas experienced a decline in total bird population. Migratory birds suffered significant losses.
“Grassland birds have shown the largest loss and the steepest rate of decline of any group birds,” reported lead author Ken Rosenberg, of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Coauthor Arvind Panjabi, of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, told me that northeast Montana has some of the “best, last habitat” for grassland birds.
Shorebirds had been at low numbers, and now another third of their population is gone. Two of Montana’s shorebirds, the piping plover and red knot, are listed under the Endangered Species Act, as are the whooping crane, yellow-billed cuckoo, and least tern. “It is less expensive and more effective to act to avoid future listing than to rely upon the Endangered Species Act as a failsafe,” Panjabi explained.
Some native resident species showed gain, notably the raptors and waterfowl that has been the focus of relatively modest conservation funding for decades. Conservation works! But the relatively modest gains do not come anywhere near offsetting the losses.
“There are so many ways to help save birds,” said coauthor Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy. “Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save the lives of millions of birds—actions like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors, and protecting habitat.”
Let’s support the National Environmental Policy Act, strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, increase funding for programs to protect bird habitat, and enact the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Let’s support measures to address climate change, to reduce harmful emissions, responsibly site clean-energy infrastructure, and replant forests. Let’s protect roadless wildlands with formal wilderness designation. Let’s tell our politicians to protect birds and bird habitat.
If the environment is not healthy for birds, it’s not healthy for us. Let’s help the birds survive and thrive.
—Anne Millbrooke, of Bozeman, is a historian who works in the history of natural history. She is a past president of the Sacajawea Audubon Society and a member of the National Audubon Society.