Alert: Your Favorite Songbirds May Be in a Precipitous Free-Fall

Yellow Songbird

Story at-a-glance -

  • By 2075, some birds will have lost up to 90 percent of their current habitat range while others will increase theirs significantly
  • Human activities, including habitat loss, landscape changes (deforestation and urban growth), and climate change, are driving these shifts
  • Thirty-three species of “common” birds are also starting to decline at alarming rates, largely due to habitat destruction, invasive species, and other threats

By Dr. Becker

By the year 2075, the birds in your backyard may be very different. In a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of 50 bird species, the authors revealed that some will lose a significant amount of range while others will increase it.1 In other words, certain birds may disappear from your yard while new species enter.

What’s driving much of this change? Human activities, including habitat loss, landscape changes (deforestation and urban growth), and climate change. According to study author and USGS scientist Terry Sohl:2

"Habitat loss is a strong predictor of bird extinction at local and regional scales… Shifts in species' ranges over the next several decades will be more dramatic for some bird species than others."

Some Birds Will Lose More Than 90 Percent of Their Present Range

If you’re accustomed to seeing the Baird sparrow at your birdfeeder, this may one day become a rare sight. The Baird sparrow is expected to be one of the hardest hit species, losing 91 percent of its present range by 2075.

The data came from computer modeling that factored in upcoming environmental and habitat changes and their effects on North American bird species. The primary factors expected to cause shifts in species’ ranges include:

  • Temperature increases of 3-7 degrees F, which may push breeding areas north and alter migratory patterns and food availability
  • Precipitation increases and decreases
  • Land use and land cover changes, including deforestation and urban growth, which could lead to high loss of habitat in certain regions

According to Sohl, “Changing landscape patterns such as deforestation and urban growth are likely to have at least as large of an impact on future bird ranges as climate change for many species.”3

While some species may be driven north into Canada, others used to breeding in the far southern US will likely greatly expand their range as temperatures warm. This includes Gambel’s quail and cactus wren, which are expected to expand their ranges by more than 54 percent. The species most likely to be impacted in 2075, as compared to 2001, include the following:4

Gambel's quail: 61.8 percent gain Cactus wren: 54.1 percent gain Scissor-tailed flycatcher: 46.4 percent gain
Gray vireo: 44.9 percent gain Painted bunting: 38.5 percent gain Anna's hummingbird: 27.2 percent gain
Black-capped chickadee: 21 percent loss Ferruginous hawk: 21.2 percent loss Sora: 22.8 percent loss
Northern harrier: 24.7 percent loss Bobolink: 24.9 percent loss Short-eared owl: 26.2 percent loss
Vesper sparrow: 26.4 percent loss Savannah sparrow: 27.2 percent loss Sedge wren: 29 percent loss
Gray partridge: 35.6 percent loss Sharp-tailed grouse: 44.8 percent loss Chestnut-collared longspur: 54.1 percent loss
Baird's sparrow: 90.8 percent loss

The State of the Birds Report Finds ‘Alarming Declines’

Thirty-three species of “common” birds are starting to decline at alarming rates, according to the “State of the Birds Report 2014,” which was authored by the US Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.5

Habitat destruction is by far the biggest cause, however invasive species, such as mongoose, rats, and mosquitoes carrying malaria are also a threat (particularly in Hawaii, where one-third of all US federally endangered birds live). According to the report:6

“The passenger pigeon, once numbering in the billions, is a strong reminder that even species considered common can become extinct without careful attention, as it did Sept. 1, 1914. Another focus for The State of the Birds 2014 is the importance of keeping common birds common.

The report identifies 33 species, like the northern bobwhite quail, grasshopper sparrow and bank swallow, that do not meet the Watch List criteria but are declining rapidly in many areas. These birds have lost more than half their global population, and the 33 species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals in just the past 40 years.

Similarly, research by the Audubon Society revealed that since 1967 the average population of some common songbirds has fallen by 68 percent, with certain species falling by 80 percent. And the 20 birds that make up their Common Birds in Decline List lost at least half of their populations in the last 40 years.7 According to the Audubon Society:8

The wide variety of birds affected is reason for concern. Populations of meadowlarks and other farmland birds are diving because of suburban sprawl, industrial development, and the intensification of farming over the past 50 years.

Greater Scaup and other tundra-breeding birds are succumbing to dramatic changes to their breeding habitat as the permafrost melts earlier and more temperate predators move north in a likely response to global warming.

Boreal forest birds like the Boreal Chickadee face deforestation from increased insect outbreaks and fire, as well as excessive logging, drilling, and mining. The one distinction these common species share is the potential to become uncommon unless we all take action to protect them and their habitat.”

Additional widespread threats to birds include wind turbines, communications towers (which are involved in an estimated 6 million bird deaths annually) and even domestic cats, making solutions complicated and varied.9 In Canada alone, an estimated 22 million birds die every year from colliding with windows of homes.10

What Can You Do to Help Protect Birds?

Protecting birds can start right in your own backyard. Consider creating an area with natural habitat, including native grasses, shrubs, and trees, for birds to find refuge, especially if you live in an area that’s highly developed (or surrounded by lawn “deserts”).

Add in a source of water and food for the birds, minimize your use of pesticides and other garden chemicals (including fertilizers) and consider these additional tips to make your yard “bird-friendly”:11

  • Install bird nest boxes, which provide nesting areas even in urban areas
  • Reduce window collisions; place bird feeders within three feet or at least 20 feet away from windows and hang mylar tape strips from windows that are frequently struck by birds
  • Create a brush pile: A pile of downed tree limbs or other yard brush can provide an important refuge for birds during bad weather

On a larger scale, you can support initiatives to protect local habitat, support sustainable agricultural practices and sustainable forest management, protect wetlands and combat invasive species. The Audubon Society has a number of advocacy campaigns that you can get involved in by sending a letter to Congress or signing a petition.12