One of the great environmental crises today — and there are many — is the loss of biodiversity on planet Earth. Human actions have lead to an extinction rate higher than anything seen on Earth in the last 10 million years, as a sweeping UN report recently explained. It’s estimated the average vertebrate (bird, fish, mammal, amphibian) population has lost around 60 percent of its individual members since the 1970s.
Scientists keep telling us that something is going devastatingly wrong in the natural world. Today, a study in Science focuses on the birds of North America, and the results are again eye-opening and grim.
A team of scientists at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in collaboration with the US Geological Survey and several conservation groups, have estimated North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. That’s an estimated decline of 30 percent in the total bird population. In other words: More than one in four birds has disappeared from American skies in the last 50 years.
A 30 percent population decline since I was eight years old. Wow.
* The Illinois angle in the Tribune…
Jim Herkert, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society, has been studying data for our state that further confirms the Cornell study’s findings: “Over the past 10 years, my estimate is that Illinois is losing about 1.4 million birds per year,” Herkert says. That’s a decline, he points out, that is continuing. And though it’s a small percentage of a large population of birds, “it’s big. And it’s certainly not a sustainable rate of decline.” […]
[Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum], who has spent years in the agricultural zones of Illinois documenting bird populations, says the shift to industrialized agricultural starting around the 1970s is a major habitat change for birds that has undoubtedly had an impact on the decline. “The intensification of agriculture doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else out there.” […]
“Fifty years ago, if you went out into the agricultural fields in Illinois, a lot of the grassland birds were still in them,” says Stotz. “Today, if you go out there, there’s nothing.” […]
Though it seems counterintuitive, “cities can be a refuge for wildlife,” says Stotz. Chicago’s backyards, lakefront and network of forest preserves have helped to nurture wildlife for decades and continue to provide habitat for species such as raptors, a group of birds that rebounded after use of the pesticide DDT was discontinued. “There’s habitat in cities,” Stotz says, “and there’s potential for a whole lot more.”