On a recent sunny Saturday, Dwight Cooley and some friends spent four hours at north Alabama’s Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area looking for different kinds of what an online dictionary defines as “a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak and (typically) by being able to fly.”
In other words, they were birding.
Cooley, the former manager of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, has been bird-watching and doing bird counts since the 1970s, and what he and the others saw on that recent Saturday was not encouraging. In their four hours in the field, they saw dozens of birds, including 16 representing five species of warblers. Four decades ago, under similar conditions, Cooley said, the group not only would have seen more warblers, but also more species of them.
“You just don’t see the number of birds that we used to see, and you don’t see the diversity of birds out there,” Cooley said.
Cooley’s perspective is reflected in a recent report published in the journal Science that reports the wild bird population in North America has declined by nearly a third since 1970. That represents a net loss of nearly 3 billion birds from most “biomes,” or naturally occurring communities, and birds that we are accustomed to seeing in Alabama are among those hit the hardest.
As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes, “More than 90% of the losses (more than 2.5 billion birds) come from just 12 families, including the sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches.”
Many birds that belong to these families nest in or migrate through Alabama.
“Even the beloved red-winged blackbird — a common sight in virtually every marsh and wet roadside across the continent — has declined by 92 million birds,” Cornell states.
“Alabama has well over 400 of the world’s bird species on its list, and the vast majority of those occur here every year,” wrote longtime birder Paul Franklin, former president of the Birmingham Audubon Society and a past participant in the North America Breeding Bird Survey, in a message to BirminghamWatch. “Most anyone who has spent significant time in the outdoors over the past generation or two has witnessed the steady decline of birds — both in numbers of individuals and numbers of species.
“One thing I could easily say to sum it up is: Some years ago, as recently as the ‘80s and ‘90s — we went out to look AT birds. More recently, we go out to look FOR birds. It’s a demoralizing change.”
“We’ve seen the waves of migrating songbirds turn into a trickle. We’ve witnessed the utter collapse and near-disappearance of bobwhites, meadowlarks, evening grosbeaks, whip-poor-wills, several blackbird species and numerous other species. We’ve seen ranges shift northward or shift outright.”
Tables in the published report in Science list what the authors call the “net change in abundance across North American bird families” from 1970 to 2017. While it shows overall declines for various bird families, some species of birds within those families are not in danger to the degree that others are.
For example, the hardest-hit family in the report is that of new world sparrows. The new world sparrow family includes field sparrows, a bird the Cornell website lists in steep decline, “partly because of the expansion of suburbs, where field sparrows will not nest.” On the other hand, the field sparrow family includes the eastern towhee, known for its high-pitched “tuweet” as it forages in backyard undergrowth, forests and woodland patches. While the towhee’s numbers have declined, Cornell says its status is of “low concern,” conservation-wise.
The report’s tables also list bird families that have not registered declines but are either holding their own or have increased in the 1970-2017 period. Among those families are ospreys, hawks (which include eagles) woodpeckers, pelicans and storks and thrushes (which include bluebirds). In his note to BirminghamWatch, Franklin said these and other positive indicators are no accident.
“We have witnessed the return from near-oblivion of bald eagles, the bluebirds, whooping cranes, brown pelicans,” Franklin said. “Why? How? We humans decided that they were of value and we went to work on saving them.”
In that same spirit, Franklin said there is much more that can be done, attitudinally and legally.
“What if we collectively determined that birds in general were an important marker of the health of our environment, and that we need to put our minds and hearts to work on saving them?” Franklin said. “We’d dictate planting native trees, shrubs, and forbs (flowering plants). We’d legislate noxious herbicides, pesticides and other toxins out of our farms and gardens. We’d mandate mitigation for all forms of habitat destruction (developer wants to build a 60-acre subdivision? S/he would be required to create at least an equal amount of certified wildlife habitat before being permitted to build).
“Want to build an office building or shopping center? You may, but it will cost you a park. (A wildlife habitat-certified park of equal size. etc.) Just as we seem to be moving toward carbon offset credits that may be purchased and exchanged, we need habitat credits, too. We can do this. But we are rapidly approaching the abyss. We’re running out of time.”