The Dire Situation of North American Birds—How We Can Make a Difference

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

This fall saw the release of two major reports describing the perilous state of North American birds. Together, they serve as a wake-up call for anyone concerned about not only birds, but the health of our planet. 

In September the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published the report “Decline of North American Avifauna” in the journal Science, reporting a decline of nearly 3 billion breeding birds across every North American biome since 1970. This represents a nearly 30 percent decline in bird populations over the past five decades. The report used a variety of standardized long-term data sets to estimate population changes in 529 North American bird species as well as weather radar to estimate changes in biomass of night-migrating birds. The researchers found that 57 percent of the species reviewed are experiencing long-term declines, not only species that are considered imperiled, but also common species. Among the most hard-hit are grassland birds (53 percent decline), shorebirds (37 percent decline) and western forest birds (29 percent decline).

Western Meadowlark, photo by Scott Carpenter

In October, the National Audubon Society published the report “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” showing that a 3 degree Celsius rise in temperatures would threaten two-thirds of North American bird species with extinction over the next century. National Audubon used more than 140 million bird records from more than 70 data sources as well as sophisticated modeling of current and projected future habitat availability under different climate change scenarios to arrive at this conclusion. 

These are startling and frightening conclusions, but there are ways to make a difference. Where we have taken decisive action, improvement has occurred. For example, many raptor populations have increased, largely due to the 1972 DDT ban, and many populations of waterfowl are increasing thanks to billions of dollars in wetland conservation and restoration. Huge challenges remain, but there are productive paths forward.

What is Portland Audubon doing to protect birds?

Portland Audubon has been fighting for Oregon’s birds since 1902 beginning with advocacy to establish the first wildlife refuges in the west at Malheur, Klamath, and Three Arch Rocks and Oregon’s first bird protection law, the Model Bird Act of 1903. Today, our multifaceted approach focuses on protecting the most important bird habitat, reducing avian hazards, and recovering imperiled species. 

The biggest threat to wild birds remains habitat loss and fragmentation, regardless. Our initiatives focus on marine, forest, grassland, desert (sage-steppe), wetland, and urban ecosystems to ensure that the most important bird habitats are protected and restored. Among our top priorities in the coming years are restoration of two important bird refuge complexes on the Pacific Flyway at Klamath and Malheur, protection of remaining old-growth forests, and expansion of Oregon’s fledgling system of marine reserves. In the Portland Metro Region, we continue to build an interconnected system of natural areas using strategies including acquisition, regulation, and voluntary action.

Northern Spotted Owl
Northern Spotted Owl, photo by Scott Carpenter

While habitat is the top priority, we cannot ignore other anthropogenic threats that put additional pressures on already stressed bird populations. We have developed a number of cutting-edge hazard-reduction campaigns including Cats Safe at Home to humanely reduce the number of free-roaming cats, Birdsafe Buildings to reduce window collisions, Lights Out to reduce light pollution, as well as campaigns focused on pesticides and poaching

Imperiled species point us toward the most acute threats. Portland Audubon prioritizes working to recover Oregon’s most at risk species and the habitats on which they depend, including Northern Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets (mature and old-growth forests), Greater Sage-grouse (sage-steppe), and Streaked Horned Larks (grasslands). As California Condors return to Oregon in the coming years, we will amp up our focus on the biggest threat to their recovery, the continued use of lead ammunition. 

Beyond our focus on birds, we have prioritized combating climate change through opposition to new fossil fuel projects, reducing emissions, promoting landscape resiliency, and ensuring that new renewable energy facilities such as wind and solar farms are properly sited to minimize wildlife impacts. 

There are many ways to get involved and we need your voice and your energy: 

  • Our Backyard Habitat Certification Program, co-managed with Columbia Land Trust, is a great place to start. More than 40 percent of our urban landscape is residential, and joining the more than 5,000 people already enrolled is a direct way to improve the health of our urban landscape. 
  • You can get involved in one of our many community science projects that help research the status of Oregon’s bird populations, from her rocky shores in the west to her sage-steppe deserts in the east. Our Christmas Bird Count, now approaching its century mark, is part of a nationwide effort that provided some of the foundational data for both the Cornell and National Audubon reports. 
  • Finally, please become a Portland Audubon activist—we need your voices to force the type of policy changes that are needed to make the changes fundamental changes to protect the environment on which both we and birds depend.