A recent study published in the journal Science found that North America has lost 29 percent of its bird population in the last 50 years. That’s nearly 3 billion birds of all different species, from meadowlarks to swallows to robins.
And to no one’s surprise, the Baltimore region has noticed that decline. For example, the whippoorwill and the American woodcock, once common around Baltimore and throughout eastern North America, are at risk because their habitat has been declining with urbanization.
“In Baltimore County there’s just one place left where they’ll nest and that’s Soldier’s Delight just north of Baltimore near the Liberty Reservoir,” said David Curson, director of bird conservation for the Audubon Society in Baltimore.
Curson sites a recent Audubon Society report that says climate change will force birds to find new homes, and that many of them may not survive.
“We found that two-third of bird species that were studied will be at risk of extinction by around 2080,” he said.
Chris Eberly, of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership, says those aren’t the only species in decline.
“We’ve noticed fewer iconic species like Baltimore oriole, wood thrush, the Eastern whippoorwill,” he said.
Although climate change and habitat loss factor into the declining populations, Eberly says birds face some very mundane challenges as well.
“Cats are actually the largest source of human-induced mortality on birds,” he said. “And it’s over 2.5 billion a year. Collisions with the windows are another large source.”
The study notes that birds are indicators of environmental health, and their declining populations are a signal humans are having such a severe impact in North America that natural systems no longer support robust wildlife populations.
Peter Martin, naturalist at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, calls it the canary in a coal mine effect.
“If we’re losing our birds it means that we’re doing something to change the environment, and these birds are disappearing.”
Curson says there’s something else to think about when it comes to the loss of birds; economic impact.
Dorchester County alone, home of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, could lose $27 million a year in birding related tourism.
Eberly says it also means the loss of a deeper, spiritual connection.
“When I’m out in the woods and I hear a song like the wood thrush it just makes me feel like I’m connected to nature in some really big way,” he explains.
Jessica Jeannetta, a naturalist at Oregon Ridge Park, says she finds it hard to imagine a world without birds.
“I think if that happens I don’t think we will have a lot of imagining,” she says, “because I think that we’ll be gone.”
But Curson says it’s not totally hopeless. He connects the bird population decline to climate change and talks about what we need to do to reverse the trend.
“We need to reduce emissions,” he says. “We need to transition our economy to renewable energy and the only way to do this in a democratic society like America is for everyone to stand up and be counted.”
He also suggests checking out the Cornell University website 3BillionBirds.org to read about seven steps that anyone can take to make a difference. For one thing, don’t be so fussy about those carefully manicured suburban lawns. Scientists say they create a “habitat monoculture” that offers birds nothing by way of habitat or food.
Scientists say that if something doesn’t change, the day could come when there are no birds in the Baltimore sky, just BWI air traffic and the police surveillance choppers - and those pesky Amazon delivery drones. And you’ll have to go to the Cornell web site to hear the whippoorwill call.