Surely you’ve heard reports about birds that are threatened by environmental changes. But it’s not just far-off rainforest species or pole-dwelling penguins that face an uncertain future — many less exotic North American birds are experiencing significant drops in numbers.
In fact, 20 common North American bird populations have been cut in half in just four decades, according to the latest installment of the Audubon Society report Common Birds in Decline. These birds in danger have earned the unfortunate distinction of a spot on Audubon’s list: American Bittern, Black-throated Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, Common Grackle, Common Tern, Eastern Meadowlark, Evening Grosbeak, Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Greater Scaup, Horned Lark, Lark Sparrow, Little Blue Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Bobwhite, Northern Pintail, Ruffed Grouse, Rufous Hummingbird, Snow Bunting and Whip-poor-will.
Every bird’s situation is different, but a common culprit lurks behind virtually all of the nose-diving numbers: humans and their activities. Mile upon square mile of prime Eastern Meadowlark habitat has been lost to housing, industry and farming. The tundra-dwelling Greater Scaup is under pressure from human-caused pollution and climate change, which affects ecosystems in its breeding grounds. And the Boreal Chickadee suffers from deforestation caused by excessive logging, drilling and mining, according to Audubon.
While none of these species is in imminent danger of extinction, the report is a reminder that perhaps we ought to pay attention before they arrive at the brink. "This is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens," wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times after the Audubon report came out.
It’s partly due to the work of "citizen scientists" — bird-watching volunteers — that Audubon is able to reliably track bird numbers year after year. If the declines are to be reversed, it’s also up to citizens. Audubon suggests taking steps that range from local (preserving habitats) to global (fighting global climate change) to avoid a much longer, bleaker version of what Rachel Carson famously termed a "silent spring." Learn more at the Audubon Society's Common Birds in Decline page.