The recent New York Times story, “Birds Are Vanishing From North America,” on the surface rang of sensationalist journalism. It turns out, however, that the piece was rooted in current research, based on a recent study in the peer-reviewed journal, Science. Carl Zimmer summarized the new research concisely, writing, “The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29% since 1970 …There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.”

Throughout North America, those of us engaged in avian conservation were shocked by the numbers and their implications. These were not just populations of rare and endangered birds being studied. Rather, they were birds most ornithologists would consider common, such as the red-winged blackbird, whose numbers have declined by 94 million during the past five decades. In other words, birds that we now consider to be common may soon be endangered.

In the conservation community, we understand the major causes of bird mortality that were outlined in the study. These include habitat loss, collisions with buildings, predation by feral and pet cats, and pesticide use that is not only poisoning birds of prey but is also reducing the biomass of insects upon which songbirds feed. These are issues that are firmly on the radar of Seattle Audubon, where I serve as a member of the board of directors. We have programs currently in effect to slow the decline of birds in our local community, and yet even we were unaware that the situation nationwide was as acute as it is.

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For us, bird conservation is very much a local issue. We estimate that in the 1950s, Seattle’s tree canopy covered 50% of the city’s land area. Today, it has dwindled to about 28%. This is the sort of habitat loss that should concern all residents of the Emerald City. Yes, Seattle Audubon has an urban forestry initiative geared to helping the city meet its goals of restoring our canopy to 30% by 2037, but now we have to ask whether this will be too little, too late.

However, there is reason for hope. We know that conservation efforts can be effective. Seattle Audubon’s own community-science projects once documented a decline in ground-nesting Savannah Sparrows in Discovery Park — a trend that a simple change in parks department mowing schedules would likely help to reverse. With science behind it, conservation works.

Conservation efforts can be effective. Seattle Audubon’s community-science projects once documented a decline in ground-nesting Savannah Sparrows in Discovery Park. That trend appears to have been reversed thanks to a simple change in the Seattle Parks Department mowing schedules.
Conservation efforts can be effective. Seattle Audubon’s community-science projects once documented a decline in ground-nesting Savannah Sparrows in Discovery Park. That trend appears to have been reversed thanks to a simple change in the Seattle Parks Department mowing schedules.

As the Seattle skyline grows, building collisions are becoming a more serious problem for migrating birds. The National Audubon Society has asked us to help pioneer an initiative to deal with bird collisions, working collaboratively with the city council. If we get serious about this, we may be able to find answers here in Seattle that will help conserve birds through the country, especially in urban areas that don’t have the resources of a Seattle Audubon Society, an organization that has engaged in bird conservation for more than a century.

This is the time for action. At our September board meeting, before the study’s release, we committed to targeted recruitment efforts for our conservation committee. We are currently seeking volunteers to serve as community scientists, people who may or may not currently be members of our organization. We understand that we will need greater community engagement if we want to reverse the trends of the past 50 years. At a more substantive level, we realize that we can no longer afford merely to be bird watchers. At this juncture, we must become a city of bird protectors. Please join us in these efforts.