Press Room

Audubon Declares a 'Bird Emergency,' Demands Immediate Action After Scientists Reveal Huge Losses of North American Birds

‘We have to act now to protect the places birds count on: Places like the Arctic, Great Lakes, Everglades and the Colorado River must be a priority.’

WASHINGTON (September 19, 2019) — Today, Science published a study by a joint team of conservation biologists describing a grim picture: a steady decline of nearly three billion North American birds since 1970, primarily as a result of human activities. In other words, within one human lifetime, North America lost more than one quarter of its avifauna.

“The connection between birds and humans is undeniable—we share the same fate. This is a bird emergency with a clear message: the natural world humans depend on is being paved, logged, eroded and polluted. You don’t need to look hard for the metaphor: birds are the canaries in the coal mine that is the earth’s future,” said David Yarnold (@david_yarnold), president and CEO of National Audubon Society.

“Since the 1970’s, we’ve lost three billion of America’s birds. This is a full-blown crisis that requires political leadership as well as mass individual action. We have to act now to protect the places we know birds rely on. Places like the Arctic Refuge, Great Lakes, Everglades, and Colorado River must be a priority. From the newest Audubon members to the most tenured Senators, we all can act today to protect birds and the places they need.”

The bird declines are due to varying causes, all of which are results of human activity. These include habitat loss via agricultural conversion and urban development, predation from outdoor cats, collisions with buildings and windows and widespread pesticide use, which also kills off insects, an important source of food for birds.

“Birds are excellent indicators of environmental health. Severe declines in common birds, like those shown in this study, tell us something is wrong and underscores the need to become better stewards of the planet,” said Dr. Nicole Michel (@nicole_michel), senior quantitative ecologist with Audubon.

What Can We Do About This?

In response to this report, Audubon will be mobilizing its 1.65 million members to urge lawmakers to act on the following bird conservation priorities:

  1. Protect the Arctic in Alaska, by restoring protections to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protecting the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands – key breeding and staging habitat for literally millions of birds, including many long-distance migrants that travel to six continents and all 50 states. Contrary to the BLM's spurious claim in the Coastal Plain Leasing Program Final Environmental Impact Statement that climate change will drive birds extinct regardless of how much habitat is compromised by oil development, the same threatened habitat actually provides birds' best chances of adapting to and surviving in our rapidly changing Arctic.
  2. Return the Great Lakes to their former glory by passing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act, which would enhance coastal wetlands and improve natural infrastructure that will provide optimal breeding habitat for waterbirds while cleaning and storing water.
  3. Implement the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which would provide a globally unique habitat with the right amount of freshwater at the right time. The Everglades is home to 70 threatened and endangered species and more than 300 native bird species.
  4. Invest in water conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin, with a focus on riparian areas along the Colorado River and improving wetland habitat in the Delta. More than 400 species of birds depend on the Colorado River, including many threatened and endangered marshbirds and songbirds.
  5. Defend and reinforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which is the most important bird conservation law in the United States, protecting nearly one thousand species of North American birds. Audubon strongly opposes the administration’s unprecedented weakening of the law and supports draft legislation to codify the MBTA’s long-standing interpretation, which would protect all enumerated species from avoidable industrial hazards, such as oil waste pits. Such a reinforcement of the law could result in preventing millions if not billions of bird deaths in decades to come.

Individual Actions

In addition to urging lawmakers to protect birds through legislation at the local, state and federal level, Audubon is encouraging people to take simple everyday actions to help birds, starting with growing native plants. Because habitat loss is a major threat to North American birds and climate change will only compound this threat and many others, growing native plants is an easy and effective way to provide food, shelter and safe passage for many of the birds in decline.

Those interested should simply type in their ZIP code to search Audubon’s Native Plants Database, which offers a free online tool to discover the bird-friendly plants, trees, shrubs and grasses that are native to their region and locate a local supplier to start or grow their own backyard bird oasis.

Audubon Has Been Here Before

At the turn of the 20th century, birds like the Great Egret, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill were being hunted for their decorative breeding plumes, which were all the rage in women’s fashion at the time. These species were being pushed to the brink of extinction. However, the earliest Audubon members fought back against the plume trade and encouraged the creation and passing of the earliest conservation laws, resulting in the MBTA in 1918. In the decades to follow, these birds and many others began a major comeback, and it is not exaggeration to say that the MBTA prevented the extinction of several species.

“Birds are down but not out. When you give birds half a chance, they recover,” said Michel.

Audubon encourages those interested in getting involved at the local level to protect birds and the places they need to join and support their local Audubon chapter.

About the Study

Researchers led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, US Geological Survey, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center analyzed data from five decades’ worth of on-the-ground bird surveys, including data from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, in addition to studying the number of migratory birds in flight captured by 143 weather radar stations located across the United States. Such drastic declines of bird populations are not limited to North America, and similar drops are taking place across the globe. Losses were seen in all types of birds, and for some species the staggering losses of individuals numbered in the tens of millions.

About Audubon

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using, science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.org  and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

Contact: Nicolas Gonzalez, nicolas.gonzalez@audubon.org, (212) 979-3068.

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