Birds are all around us. We watch them migrate; we sit for hours at windows and observe them at bird feeders. We look up when spring and fall flights pass overhead and sound off in large flocks. We observe them through an early evening sky, feasting on insects while diving and soaring through the air. Whether we realize it or not, birds have a purpose that is vital for our survival. On the other side of the coin, many if not all of our birds are or could soon be in trouble soon.
According to a new study in the journal SCIENCE, North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds. 3 BILLION BIRDS! Since 1970 1 out of every 4 birds are gone. Some species, especially grassland birds, have been hit hardest with a decline of 53% since 1970. That includes one of the most iconic grasslands birds that live in the US, the Eastern Meadowlark. As a farm kid growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s Meadowlarks were everywhere and their song echoed across pastures, hayfields and farm fields. I often echoed their call back to them and remember their song, but I don’t remember the last time I heard it. The Meadowlark’s bright yellow breast, black collar and musical summer song is just a memory around here. But on a recent hunting trip to North Dakota I was surprised and happy to see them on the prairie, knowing we have lost 3 out of four today. That’s a loss of 720 million grassland birds total. Meadowlarks are not alone in this great decline. Joining them are Henslowe’s Sparrow, the Bobolink, Greater Prairie Chickens, Northern Bobwhites, Vesper Sparrow, to name but a few.
According to Audubon less than 40% of the 550 million acres of historical grasslands that once stretched from Alberta to Mexico remain today. Most of the loss has been attributed to cropland, not the pre 1970s cropland where small family dairy farmers were using crop rotation, pastures and organic homegrown crops and grains. Then farmers were able to live in harmony with grassland birds. Sure some grassland birds had to move when hay was cut but those birds had alternative lands to re-nest on.
The problem is today’s mega farms where cows are milked by the hundreds in massive barns, hardly stepping out of feedlots and milking parlors. The lost grasslands and friendly farm fields have been replaced with miles of cornfields and bean fields that are nothing more than barren deserts where practically nothing can survive after herbicides and pesticides have been pumped into the ecosystem.
Audubon is working with willing farmers, ranchers and citizens to restore and preserve some grassland habitats and more are in the planning stages. People are being educated about the importance of prairie grasslands for things like creation of topsoil and clean air and water. We need to get the word out. Just like the canary warned miners, we too have to be smart enough to realize that today’s birds are warning us of the threat to the world that both humans and birds share.
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org