Three Billion Birds Have Vanished in My Lifetime

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently published disturbing new statistics about the precipitous decline in North America’s bird population.

The research shows that the number of birds in the US and Canada have declined by 3 billion since 1970. That amounts to a 29% decline of the total birds in North America during my lifetime.

The decline in population involves over 75% of bird species — and affects almost all birds. The article doesn’t say much about why this is happening, but it mentions a few possible causes. Namely, loss of habitat (particularly for grassland species), modern agriculture (particularly pesticides) and urban development.

The numbers are staggering. The implications, dire. There may come a time in the not-too-distant future when many birds are absent from the sky, the trees, and the forests of our world. It’s almost too much for me to bear. You see, I only recently discovered the joy of bird watching.

I started watching birds in the summer of 2017, a few months after my daughter died. Ana was 15 and had been battling a rare form of childhood cancer since the age of 11. She’d died in March of that year, just two days before winter officially turned into spring.

I was unable to function in any sort of linear way for months. Instead, I wandered my newly empty world as if I was lost. I spent hours sitting in my yard watching hummingbirds. I took long walks on local rail trails, looking for feathers and heart-shaped stones, anything in the natural world that I could interpret as a sign from my daughter’s spirit.

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Ruby-throated hummingbird — Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

That was the start of my birding obsession — feathers and hummingbirds, but there is only one species of hummingbird that visits the Northeastern US in spring and summer, the ruby-throated hummingbird. It vanishes by the end of September, migrating south to Central America.

Many birds winter in New York, so I put feeders out and watched them. It was a huge learning curve for me. I went through half a dozen different feeders in an effort to thwart the squirrels.

I tried multiple feed configurations before I found the perfect combination to attract the widest variety of birds to my yard — and then I learned that some birds don’t come to feeders because they prefer fruit and bugs to seed. I began learning about what kinds of native fruit-bearing plants to add to my garden.

I learned that the best time to see unusual birds is during spring and fall migration, when birds move to and from Canada and pass through New York. For me, this education in birding has been an incredibly enjoyable distraction from my grief and a surprising period of self discovery. I thought I had the rest of my life to keep learning about birds and drawing them to my yard.

Migrating Common Yellowthroat — Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

I think part of the reason I’m so enamoured with birds is that I don’t associate them with anything having to do with the past. Birds soothe my grieving heart for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they exist fully in the present. They live lives of constant peril, but they keep coming back. They keep surviving. But now they’re in trouble.

Birds aren’t always singing. There are times during the day when they’re silent. They are much more vocal during the spring breeding season, for example. They sing more loudly and persistently in the early morning — a phenomenon known as the “dawn chorus.”

Through my near-constant observation of the birds at my feeders, I’ve noticed patterns in bird feeding behavior. They tend to get quiet in mid-morning and again in mid-afternoon. They’re most active in the first hour or two after sunrise and again in the hours before sunset. In winter, they swarm my feeders just before and during a storm.

Sometimes a hawk or a cat will stalk my yard and the birds will get quiet then too, disappearing suddenly and hunkering down, waiting for the threat to pass.

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Cedar Waxwing — Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

When the birds fall silent, I know they’re still out there even though I can’t see or hear them. I inevitably wonder, during the long stretches of birdless hours, if the birds will return.

I’m prone to catastrophic thinking. I suppose this is a consequence of losing a child, but I’m usually able to calm this anxiety. I know the birds aren’t really gone. Inevitably, a tiny goldfinch or a plump house sparrow will alight on one of my feeders and I’ll sigh with relief at their return.

The consistent return of the birds is supremely comforting to me. When you lose a child, the concept of stability is suddenly shattered. The world becomes an unstable place filled with the probability of loss. I’m unable to visualize my future because the future I’d imagined died with my daughter.

But the birds gave that back to me — just a little bit at first and then with increasing certainty. I’d assumed the birds would always be here, and now I’m not so sure.

I can imagine a world without birds. It’s a quiet, empty place. It is an overused place, a place where all the things I took for granted are dying.

My heart, already grieving, breaks at the thought of this possible future. That birds might exist only as memories, relics and recordings, is a particularly cruel legacy to leave our children and grandchildren. How can we change this when it might already be too late?

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Black and White Warbler — Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

I can imagine a world without birds, but I don’t want to, so instead I’ll continue to learn about birds. I’ll participate in annual bird counts like the Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count which occurs every February and helps scientists keep track of shifting bird populations globally.

I’ll keep my cats indoors because outdoor cats kill billions of birds each year, a staggering number.

I’ll put deterrents on my windows because, annually, up to 988 million birds — 10% of the total bird population in the US — die each year from flying into windows. The largest toll is due to single-family homes and low-rise buildings, not skyscrapers.

And I’ll keep feeding wild birds not only because I enjoy watching and listening to them, but because it gives them an extra boost of calories during breeding season and much-needed nourishment in the winter months.

There are an estimated 60 million birdwatchers in the US alone. I am hopeful that, together, we can reverse the alarming trend of declining bird populations. We have the power to save birds so that future generations will know the simple joy of watching — and hearing — these amazing animals.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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