a September 2019 publication in Science Magazine

by Carole Jorgensen, Conservation Committee

A paper was recently published in peer-reviewed Science magazine by experienced and reputable authors. Decline of the North American Avifauna by Rosenberg et al. 2019  is available on FAS website at: https://www.flatheadaudubon.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Rosenberg-et-al-Science-Sept-2019.pdf. The short four pages of text (plus many more pages of citations, tables, and supporting evidence) identified a 29 percent decline in North American birds since 1970 using data assimilated from citizen science surveys and radar tracking. The paper has been widely referenced in popular literature. Some claim the paper is too alarmist while others find it confirms what they have observed in the field.

Rosenberg et. al should be complimented for their efforts to assimilate a continent-wide bird population synthesis using the best available data. Wildlife surveys are expensive, difficult, fraught with “noise” making conclusions difficult and usually lack support from agencies or the public. There is no government agency in North America mandated to track species populations and trends. Game and Fish agencies and their Canadian/Mexican equivalents may track game species and may occasionally fund non-game species monitoring, USFWS monitors some waterfowl and some listed/rare species, and most land management agencies conduct species monitoring only when required by law (for instance, Endangered Species Act) and often presume that availability of habitat ensure adequate and healthy populations. On the other hand, there are dozens of agencies that track human population parameters, economic trends, roads/bridges and infrastructure, and crops. One would think that monitoring the critters that pollinate our food, dampen insect infestations, and propagate our plants should deserve at least baseline monitoring.

The data, despite the critiques, shows clear declines in overall bird populations in North America. Is it alarming? Should you worry? If worry causes you to wring your hands, lose sleep and paralyzes you from doing anything, don’t worry it won’t matter. But if worry inspires you to continue doing what you are probably already doing:  keep your cats indoors, plant native trees and shrubs, leave snags, down wood and habitat piles, tolerate insects, demand companies and governments to operate in synch with biological balance, vote green, and support organizations that make a difference, such as Flathead Audubon, then worry—worry a lot!