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When we lose 29% of our birds, we are doing something terribly wrong
Large bird populations tell us we live in a healthy environment. Their precipitous decline tells us we do not.

Friday, September 20, 2019
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

After years of restoration work, Orland Grasslands near Orland Park has seen the return of bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, Henslow’s sparrows and other birds.

Bell’s vireos have even been spotted at the preserve, nesting in Cook County for the first time in 10 years.


Unfortunately, though, that blip of good news is overshadowed by a severe downturn in the well-being of bird populations across North America. A report published Thursday in the journal Science concludes that the United States and Canada today are home to 2.9 billion fewer birds than in 1970, a drastic decline of 29 percent. Even common species such as robins have experienced steep declines.

Like the dying canary in a coal mine, it’s a signal to us all: Trouble is on the horizon. Large bird populations tell us we live in a healthy environment, while their precipitous decline tells us we do not.

Birds pollinate plants, distribute seeds, eat up insects and brighten our mornings with their songs. When they are gone, says Pat Hayes, a volunteer at Orland Grasslands, “it means all the support for them is gone, too.”

To slow the decline in birds, far more needs to be done in the Chicago region and nationally — by everyone from large property owners and government to people with backyards.

How you can help birds

  • Protect birds from glass collisions, which contribute to more than a billion bird deaths a year in the United States. Birds see glass differently than we do, especially if vegetation is reflected in windows. Safety film, special micro-filament curtains or decals can warn birds of glass.
  • Avoid toxic pesticides. One seed coated with a neonicotinoid insecticide is enough to kill a songbird, and even less can harm a bird’s reproduction.
  • Keep cats indoors when possible, especially during migratory times. Cats living in the wild and pets allowed to roam outdoors kill billions of birds in the continental U.S. each year.
  • Plant bird- and pollinator-friendly native plants in your yard.
  • Recycle and reduce waste to keep trash, including plastics, out of aquatic environments.

Sources: American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Chicago, to its credit, has been a leader in this.

Chicago introduced the first “Lights Out” program in the nation, in which building owners turn off lights during migratory times to limit the number of birds killed by smacking into glass. The Chicago Park District and the Cook County Forest Preserve District have restored natural areas in places such as the Orland Grassland to provide habitat for birds, though it can take decades to fully restore an ecosystem.

Chicago also was the second city to sign the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Urban Bird Treaty,” which brings organizations together to create bird-friendly environments.

But birds in Illinois, like elsewhere in North America, continue to lose ground as rural areas replace traditional hayfields and pastures that once supported many birds with expanses of pesticide-filled monocultures of corn and soybeans that don’t have insects for birds to eat or places for them to shelter.

Climate change also is rapidly changing the landscape on which birds depend. When birds migrate through the Chicago area, they depend more and more on our parks, woods and even backyards. They are working their way back and forth from lands that sometimes have been hit hard by climate change, such as boreal forests to the north and tropical rain forests to the south.

1 of 7
Red-headed wookpeckers have returned to breed in Somme Woods and Deer Grove East forest preserves after long absences. Photo courtesy of Lisa Culp Musgrave

“Chicago is a huge migratory stopover location for birds because of the geography of the Great Lakes,” said Stephanie Beilke, conservation science manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “It seems like the heart of migration of birds in the Midwest.”

The birds passing through seek out our native oaks and shrubs, homes to the tiny caterpillars and insects that we seldom notice but hungry birds feed on. Invasive plant species such as buckthorn drive out these native trees and shrubs.

What birds don’t need are pesticide-laden parks, yards and corporate campuses. Pesticides are a kind of poison for birds, and they dramatically reduce crucial insect populations. Bird species such as eastern bluebirds, red-headed woodpeckers and cedar waxwings feed their young insects.

Nationally, the National Audubon Society and other groups are fighting to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which is the summer home to many birds that we see here in the spring and fall. The Trump administration wants to open the refuge to oil and gas development.

Environmentalists also are fighting to preserve the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Trump administration wants to remove the act’s provision that says companies have a responsibility for birds that die in oil pits or on power lines and other structures.

In small ways, in our everyday lives, we can do our part to help end the decline of birds.

We can take simple steps, like changing lighting, to discourage birds from flying into our windows. We can keep our cats, which love to hunt birds, indoors during migrations. We can fill our yards with native plants, eschew toxic pesticides and recycle. Birds sometimes feed on small bits of unrecycled plastic and die.

Birds have many calls. One call may warn of a predator nearby. Another may be a mating call. A third may be a staking out of territory.

Now, like the canary in the coal mine, they’re saying something else:

We are destroying their environment — and ours.

Even as the populations of some bird species in the Chicago region have risen in recent years, others have declined.
SOURCE: Bird Conservation Network

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