Birds Are Vanishing From North America

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, or 29 percent, over the past half-century, scientists find.

The skies are emptying out.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970, scientists reported on Thursday. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago. The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the most exhaustive and ambitious attempt yet to learn what is happening to avian populations. The results have shocked researchers and conservation organizations. In a statement on Thursday, David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society, called the findings “a full-blown crisis.” Experts have long known that some bird species have become vulnerable to extinction. But the new study, based on a broad survey of more than 500 species, reveals steep losses even among such traditionally abundant birds as robins and sparrows.

Picture of a Wren.

There are likely many causes, the most important of which include habitat loss and wider use of pesticides. “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s prophetic book in 1962 about the harms caused by pesticides, takes its title from the unnatural quiet settling on a world that has lost its birds: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound.” Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, said that new findings signal something larger at work: “This is the loss of nature.” Common bird species are vital to ecosystems, controlling pests, pollinating flowers, spreading seeds and regenerating forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats often are not the same. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the new research.

A team of researchers from universities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations collaborated on the new study, which combined old and new methods for counting birds.