Birds – What is Happening to Them?
Thank you to Mr. Jan Slama, ISURA Educator, for the following article about declining bird populations:
There are more than 11,000 species of birds sharing our planet with us. Until the early 1970s the global bird populations remained relatively stable. Then, something profound happened, and the birds began to vanish on an unprecedented scale.
For instance, the North American bird population has shrunk by 3 billion in the past 50 years. That represents a 29% decline from the previous numbers!
Globally, the picture is even grimmer. As of 2019, some 1,469 bird species are threatened by imminent extinction. Over 40% of all bird species are experiencing population declines.
Because of this, the most important questions we need (and should) ask are:
- Why should we care?
- Why are all these birds vanishing?
- What can be done?
Why Should We Care?
Besides some quite obvious aesthetic benefits to us, such as pleasant bird song, beautiful appearance, amazing flight, beloved pets, etc., there are many even more important roles that birds play in our global community, such as:
- Disperse seeds (i.e. fruit seeds) on the long-distance scale.
- Pollinate flowers.
- Keep ecological balance by eating pest insects, seeds of weeds, rodents, aquatic weeds, dead animals, etc.
- Provide free pest control to our gardens, farms, forests, etc.
- Serve as food to other birds, animals and to us.
- Provide free organic fertilizer to many peoples worldwide.
- Provide feathers to stuff our pillows, mattresses, sleeping bags, coats, etc. and there are many more reasons why we should care!
Why are All these Birds Vanishing?
There is no question that humans and human activities play the cardinal role in the global bird populations decline. In the sequence of seriousness, these are:
- Agriculture (mono-cultures, deforestation, pesticides).
- Logging (loss of habitat, desertification, erosion).
- Urban sprawl (loss of habitat, glass windows).
- Invasive species (destruction of nesting sites).
- Hunting and illegal pet trade (direct destruction).
- Climate change (loss of habitat, severe weather).
- Energy production and mining (loss of habitat).
Nest of Killdeer Plover and then the hatched chicks – taken in the Natural Factors Farm organic fields. Farming and wildlife can coexist!
What Can Be Done?
Problem No.1 – Agriculture
There is no question that global agricultural practices are extremely unfriendly and unhealthy to birds and to us!
Most modern agricultural production is based on monocultures – cultivating a single type of plant to increase yield profits and simplify farming. However, monoculture agriculture has significant negative impacts:
- Eliminates biological controls. The lack of diversity in a monoculture system eliminates all the functions that nature provides to plants and the soil.
- More synthetic materials must be used. Without the natural checks and balances that a diverse ecosystem provides, monoculture production must use drastic measures to protect their crops. This typically means the use of large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers. These chemical substances kill indiscriminately all manner of wildlife, including beneficial insects, birds and native plants. These practices also cause tremendous damage to soil, and to our health.
- Changing organism resistance. Nature is adaptable, and the organisms targeted by the pesticides will eventually develop a resistance to these artificial insecticides and herbicides. As a consequence, more and more chemicals are being applied to monoculture crops and this, in turn, detrimentally affects natural ecosystems, as well as our own well-being.
- Soil degradation. The overuse of chemical fertilizers in monocultures affects soil health in other ways. For example, when ground cover crops – plants to help improve moisture retention in the soil – are eliminated the topsoil is susceptible to erosion by wind and rain. Over time the remaining soil is permanently damaged and lacks almost all nutritional value for crops.
- Water overuse. The loss of ground cover crops and the retentive topsoil layer contributes to increased rain runoff and results in less water being available to penetrate through the soil to crop plant roots. This is a major reason why modern monoculture agriculture requires huge amounts of water to irrigate its crops. In turn this leads to salt and toxic chemical buildup (from irrigation water) accelerating the destruction of the farm soil and, ultimately, impacting underground water sources and the surrounding environment.
- Fossil fuels consumption. Due to their scale, many modern monoculture farms are more akin to factories than traditional farms. Such factory farming requires huge amount of energy and it is also an inefficient way of using energy to produce food. It is estimated that monoculture farming uses 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just a single calorie of food energy.
- Destruction of the remaining habitat. The monoculture agriculture systems work against nature. Because of its inefficiency, huge plots of land are needed to be economically viable. This may lead to deforestation, the loss of natural meadows, etc. on a significant scale. Traditional farming usually works in harmony with nature, providing food not just for us, but also for many other creatures, along with suitable habitats birds and other wildlife for nesting, resting, and hiding at its edges. Modern monoculture farms destroy this harmony, as well as polluting and damaging surrounding habitats. This is true tragedy, especially for birds which depend on these areas for feeding during migration and for safe nesting, and shelter. Many millions of birds are also directly killed by toxic chemicals used in monoculture farming.
Impact of Agricultural Pesticides on birds! Many synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers are extremely toxic to birds and is responsible for killing many millions of them each year! Among these the most dangerous (not just to birds but to humans too) are:
- Organochlorines such as DDT, chlordane, dicofol, and methoxychlor 8.
- Organophosphates including diazinon, isofenphos, chlorpyrifos, phosphamidon, fenitrothion, acephate, and trichlorofon are insecticides which inhibit an enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) essential for proper functioning of the nervous system. Because we all have similar mechanisms of nerve transmission, this mode of action is similar in target insects, birds, and mammals. Many organophosphates are acutely toxic to birds at very low doses.
- Carbamate insecticides, such as carbofuran, have a mode of action similar to the organophosphates and, like the organophosphates, some kill birds at very low doses. Another carbamate, carbaryl (Sevin) also has acute toxicity for birds.
- Neonicotinoid insecticides greatly effects ability to fuel and has been shown to delay migration in migratory birds. This greatly diminishes chances of successful migration of millions of birds exposed to these pesticides and contributes to migratory and breeding period morbidity.
- Herbicides are generally less acutely toxic to birds (and other animals) than insecticides however some herbicides are lethal to birds in small doses. Dinoseb, a dinitrophenol herbicide that interferes with the basic energy metabolism in both plant and animal cells, kills wild birds and is as acutely toxic to birds as some of the most toxic insecticides. Paraquat, another herbicide that is highly toxic to humans and animals, will kill adult birds at low dosages. The herbicide DNOC (dinitro-o-cresol) used as an insecticide, fungicide, and defoliant is also toxic to birds. Glyphosate, sold as Roundup weed killer, kills more than weeds. The latest research indicates that it causes DNA damage, endocrine disruption and cell death. It is cytotoxic to birds, humans and all other warm-blooded animals at low dose.
- Fertilizers (synthetic fertilizers) can be deadly to birds. Many applied fertilizers crystallize on the surface of the damaged and impermeable soil. These crystals are often ingested by the migrating flocks of birds which later suffer mass deaths due to the absorption of these highly concentrated, toxic chemicals.
Pesticides will continue to kill birds, reduce their food resources, and disrupt their normal life, reproduction, and behaviors as long as pesticides continue to be used. The only way to eliminate the effects that pesticides have on birds is to use non-chemical resource management techniques on farms, forests, lawns, and elsewhere that pesticides are used today.
Solution(s): ISURA promotes, and one of its clients (Natural Factors) actively practises organic, sustainable and biogenic farming on their company farms. These agricultural practices are very friendly to the ecosystem, wildlife, and to birds as well as to us humans.
ISURA actively tests raw materials for more than 600 pesticides and other toxins associated with modern non-organic agriculture. It also promotes the recognition of the negative impact of using synthetic chemicals and the need to eliminate their usage and replace them with non-chemical resource management practices.
Problem No.2 – Logging
More than 18 million acres of the forests are lost every year to logging. This is a crime against humanity!
Solution(s): Much can be done by individuals and by the nations. Think diligent recycling, digital documentation, re-forestation, global protection of existing forests, moratorium on logging and slash & burn practices, etc.
Problem No.3 – Urban Sprawl, Climate Change, Energy Production and Pollution
More than 60% of the world’s human population will live in urban settings by 2025. This will add some 2.5 billion more people to cities.
Solution(s): Although increased urbanization seems to be an inevitable development, solutions are on the horizon. Think electrified public and private transportation, next generation non-carbon-based energy sources, urban permaculture and aquaculture, as well as urban vertical organic farming, and much more.
Problem No.4 – Invasive Species, Uncontrolled Hunting and Illegal Pet Trade
Plant species that are not normally found within a particular habitat or ecosystem are considered invasive species. For example, in North America, purple loosestrife (native to Asia and Europe) and Japanese knotweed (native to Asia) are considered invasive species that will displace native plant species and degrade sensitive ecosystems like wetlands. Invasive plant species impact native birds and other wildlife by reducing and changing natural habitats impacting available food sources and nesting and shelter sites.
Bird populations can also be affected by uncontrolled hunting – a famous example is the extinction of passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in North America. This native bird species numbered in the billions when European settlers arrived but by the early 1800s overhunting (this pigeon species provided an accessible and inexpensive source of food) and the loss of habitat (due to deforestation) were having a significant impact on these populations. The last known passenger pigeon is believed to have died in captivity in 1914.
There is a global trade in many bird species for pets. Birds such as parrots, budgerigars, cockatiels and songbirds are much sought after and are hunted and captured in their native habitats and shipped to other countries as well as bred in captivity (often illegally). Native bird populations can be drastically affected if eggs and chicks are removed from wild nests and habitat is often destroyed in the process.
Solution(s): Updated and comprehensive changes in invasive plant species control are already underway but it is a long process that requires much vigilance year after year. As for the better management of sustainable hunting, as well the artificial breeding of animals for the pet trade, these require global cooperation, and above all the resolve to do better than we did in the past. Excellent and successful models already exist.
The most serious message from the global decline of bird populations to us is … that humans are next!
All photos by Jan Slama, except for black & grey smoke stacks courtesy of WHO-Europe.
Endnotes & References
 Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Ken Rosenberg (2019)
 Yale Environmental Studies (2018, 04)
 Audubon – Bird Ecology (2013, 04)
 Yale Environmental Studies (2018, 04)
 Regenerative (2014) – Monocultures
 Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw9419 – Stutchbury, Morrissey (2019)
 Pesticides and Birds (1991) Caroline Cox (Journal of Pesticide Reform)
 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2019)
 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA 2018)
Jan V. Slama is a research scientist. He has been involved in ornithological research (bird bending and migration studies, breeding and avifaunal ecology, and in the conservation of birds) since 1972.