By Biologist Sergio Harding
Birds are important. And we should care about what is happening to them.
That is the gist of the press surrounding a recent study that estimates that nearly three billion birds have disappeared form North America since the 1970s. The headlines are meant to grab your attention, regardless of whether you already have an interest in birds. The goal is to create greater awareness of avian declines that have been taking place before us for decades—often slowly, steadily, and silently.
Birds have intrinsic value. For many of us, they are our primary connection to the natural world because they are so easy to observe—they are everywhere that humans are found—and may in fact be the only wildlife that some of us ever see off-screen. Birds have great cultural significance, carrying symbolic weight and figuring prominently in myths, stories, literature, and art that span historical eras and human civilizations. In the United States, wild birds were once a form of human sustenance; several species continue to be hunted, with the licensing system for that hunting contributing critical funding to the conservation efforts of federal and government wildlife agencies.
Equally important recreational pursuits are birding and feeding of wild birds, which lift the spirit while having significant positive impacts on local economies. Birds further benefit human society as pollinators (hummingbirds), seed dispersers (blue jays and many more), and pest control agents (raptors and insect-eating birds). Many bird species, including woodpeckers, modify their surroundings in ways that are beneficial to other wildlife. Just as importantly, birds act as the “canary in the coal mine”—their loss from the same landscape on which our human communities depend means that the landscape is changing, and that we should be very concerned because these changes have implications for our populations as well.
By reporting on the loss of three billion birds, the bird conservation community has built a campaign to reach new audiences and alert them to the present plight of birds. As Virginia’s wildlife agency, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) has long been aware of the status of declining bird species. During this time we have been working both within DGIF and as part of broader partnerships to turn those declines around. Collectively, we have succeeded in doing so for several species.
Take, for example, the recovery of species that were on a fast-track to extirpation in the Commonwealth, like wild turkey, bald eagle and osprey. Consider the positive turnaround in populations of waterfowl species like the wood duck. Look at the fruits of ongoing work to recover birds like the peregrine falcon and red-cockaded woodpecker. This work must continue, as reflected by the 80 avian Species of Greatest Conservation Need in our Virginia Wildlife Action Plan (VABBA2); they represent our highest bird priorities due to their small, vulnerable populations or to declines in their numbers, and sometimes both.
Despite the challenges, the VABBA2 is generating a tremendous amount of fresh data. Comparing these results to baseline data collected three decades ago through the first Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, we will map changes in our bird populations over time and location. Through the VABBA2, we will also generate estimates of Virginia’s bird populations, and, species by species, create “heat maps” reflecting their densities on the landscape.
With a clearer understanding of the status of our breeding bird species, we are able to reassess our bird conservation priorities.. Knowing where Virginia’s declining bird populations are losing ground is a key to empower DGIF and the Commonwealth’s avian conservation community to take more effective action to restore our lost birds.