Almost 3 Billion Birds in North America Have Disappeared since 1970

With 1 in 4 birds vanishing, this is a worrying ecological issue.
Fabienne Lang

If you live in the U.S. or in Canada, the chances of you seeing fewer birds fluttering in the skies are quite high. A new study from Cornell University has discovered that one in four birds have disappeared from the North American region since 1970. 

That's around three billion birds altogether. 

This study highlights these disappearing birds as a wider ecological crisis, with different bird types vanishing — from the most common birds you find in your back yard to long-distance migrants like swallows.

The findings were published in Science on Thursday.


Loss of birds across all habitats

Ken Rosenberg, the lead author of the study and senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy, said: "We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds."

Almost 3 Billion Birds in North America Have Disappeared since 1970
2.9 billion birds in North America disappeared since 1970. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

It's a worrying moment when common birds are disappearing from different habitats. 

This study highlights that this is not just a conservation issue but a grander global and ecological issue. The health of our environment, particularly in the U.S. and Canada in this instance, is in dire straits. This is in large part due to human activity, and lifestyle, which is clearly not compatible with many wildlife habitats. 

Of the three billion vanishing birds, roughly 90% of them came from 12 bird families. The likes of swallows, warblers, and finches are on that list. These birds are common and important for the functioning of our ecosystem. 

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Some of the other disappearances and statistics were:

  • A 53% loss in grasslands birds since 1970 — that's around 720 million birds.
  • Shorebirds have lost more than one-third of their population.
  • Just in the last ten years, a drop of 14% in spring migratory birds has occurred.

A life without birdsong

Co-author of the study and former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the current director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative at Georgetown University, Peter Marra, said: "These data are consistent with what we're seeing elsewhere with other taxa showing massive declines, including insects and amphibians."

Marra continued, "It's imperative to address immediate and ongoing threats, both because the domino effects can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods—and because people all over the world cherish birds in their own right. Can you imagine a world without birdsong?"

Researchers saw evidence of these sharp declines in migratory birds through weather radar stations over a ten-year span, as well as 50 years' worth of ground-level data. 

Almost 3 Billion Birds in North America Have Disappeared since 1970
Seven simple actions to help birds. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The study did not look into the reasons for these declines in North America. However, it did note that these losses are, in fact, happening on a global level. This may lead us to believe that these losses are due to the widespread loss of natural habitats. 

Co-author of the study from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Adam Smith, summed it up by saying, "It's a wake-up call that we've lost more than a quarter of our birds in the U.S. and Canada."

Smith continued: "But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders. Many of the birds that breed in Canadian backyards migrate through or spend the winter in the U.S. and places farther south—from Mexico and the Caribbean to Central and South America."

"What our birds need now is a historic, hemispheric effort that unites people and organizations with one common goal: bringing our birds back," said Smith.

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