A Lewis’s Woodpecker near Harrison Hot Springs, B.C. (Submitted)

Three billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970, study finds

Worst declines found in sparrows, warblers and blackbirds

An extensive study of hundreds of bird species across decades worth of data has for the first time estimated how badly numbers of even the most common birds have shrunk.

The paper, published Thursday in the journal Science, concludes the total number of North American birds has dropped by three billion since 1970 — about 30 per cent. Some of the most familiar species have been the hardest hit.

“The species like pigeons and house sparrows and starlings, species we think of as thriving in urban environments, even those species are in steep decline,” said Adam Smith, an Environment Canada scientist and the paper’s co-author.

The study, conducted through nine universities and government agencies in Canada and the United States, looked at 529 different kinds of birds.

It’s based on data collected from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, which began in the mid-1960s with the help of governments and an extensive network of volunteers. It was backed up by information contained in records from 143 U.S. weather radar stations, which are able to track migrating flocks.

The declines have been widespread. Except for waterbirds and raptors, which are heavily conserved, nearly every family is suffering.

Forest birds such as flycatchers, woodpeckers and chickadees are down more than a billion.

Grassland birds — meadowlarks, sparrows, wrens — have been more than halved. There are 700 million fewer of them than there were 50 years ago. Three-quarters of the species in this family are shrinking.

The worst declines have been ascribed to some of the most abundant birds. Sparrows, warblers and blackbirds account for almost three-quarters of the total losses.

“The loss of abundance overall is something that has a cost to our healthy ecosystems,” Smith said.

“There are billions fewer beaks out there to eat insects. There are fewer birds to eat and disperse plant seeds. And there are fewer birds for us to experience.”

Birds are also what scientists call an indicator species. Because information on them is so extensive, they reveal early trends in environmental change.

“Birds are an indicator that the natural world is stressed,” said Smith.

The results of the Science paper were foreshadowed by the State of the Birds report, which came out in June and looked at Canadian species. That report found similar patterns — waterbirds up, most everything else down, with some unknowns.

The findings are echoed by other research detailing declines in insects, amphibians and fish.

The current study doesn’t address reasons for the drops, but Smith said previous research points to probable causes.

READ MORE: Wrong turn leaves Caribbean-bound bird in B.C.’s Lower Mainland

“Habitat loss and degradation — the loss of the land, water and air that birds use to survive. The loss of that ecological space is the primary driver of population decline for almost all of these birds.”

He pointed out that most birds in the study migrate, so efforts to rebuild populations have to be co-ordinated across jurisdictions from Nunavut to South America. It can be done, Smith said, as it has for bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

“I want (my kids) also to see someday those massive, spectacular flocks of migrating birds that used to be and have declined.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19: SD67 approves budget reductions

Staff positions will be cut to balance budget

COVID-19: Pre-recorded graduation events planned for students in School District 67

Graduates from Penticton Secondary have created petition to urge postponement of grad ceremonies

COVID-19: SD67 plans restart program for Penticton, Summerland students

District following provincial guidelines as students return to classrooms on June 1

Petition seeks to clean up Okanagan forests ‘carpeted’ with shotgun shells

Penticton man says making shot-gun shells refundable would create cleaner forests

Eco-friendly bus service seeks to add Kelowna to Osoyoos route

Bus would stop in Kelowna, West Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland, Penticton, Kaledan, Oliver, Osoyoos

Video: Okanagan mayors encourage water conservation this summer

Water conservation this summer could be more important than ever, experts say

Enderby’s drive-in not safe from top doc’s 50-car limit

Starlight Drive-In opened with reduced capacity, COVID-19 safety measures in place

Parking lot patios a go in Vernon

Council votes in favour of allowing businesses to expand commercial space into on-street parking spots

Shuswap cabin owner disputes request to stay home in Alberta

Alberta resident redrafts response to CSRD request to stay home

Kelowna’s main drag will be closed to vehicles this summer

Kelowna’s Bernard Avenue will be a pedestrian-only roadway from June 29 through the Labour Day long weekend

Vernon gym knocked out by COVID-19

9Round Fitness in Vernon Square Mall owners announce permanent closure of facility

Snapshot: Distanced dancing in Salmon Arm

Friends use picnic shelter at Blackburn Park for safe practice

Kelowna’s Homebase Baseball Tournament cancelled

A live auction will still take place to raise funds for Joeanna’s House

Kelowna General Hospital Foundation launches fundraising initiative to support local health care

The initiative also highlights workers at Kelowna General Hospital

Most Read