The Sound of The Dead Birds

The mass death of three billion birds in 50 years represents the immense repercussion of a rapidly changing ecosystem and a warning that predicts an unstable and terrifying future for humanity.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Sophia Zhao

Since the 1970s, the beauty of birds has rapidly faded. The mornings in Central Park that once throbbed in a dawning chorus of vireos, sparrows, warblers, doves, and wrens are now silent. The coast from Alaska to California is horrifying: the smell of thousands of decaying murres reek the ocean air. When visiting Oregon’s iconic beaches, masses of birds lifelessly ripple with the waves, their bodies floating like lost boats. As humans continue to ignore warning signs about human interference, the repercussion of ignorance is apparent: in a mere 50 years, one-third of North American birds have disappeared, dying at a staggering average of 150,000 deaths per day.

Birds are undeniably crucial to the health of many ecosystems, and their populations determine the functionality of whole environments. Scientifically speaking, birds regulate, inform, and monitor the ecosystem. Birds have always been recognized as the biomarkers, or indicators of disease, of the environment. For instance, in the early 20th century, miners placed caged birds into mines to detect poisonous gases. The sound of the bird’s call alerts the miners to evacuate before they suffer harmful effects. More than just indicators of aerial toxicity, birds also aid with weather predictions, documentation of climate change, and the monitoring of habitat health.

Birds are also crucial to their ecosystems: they control pests, pollinate plants, or disperse seeds on land and curb fish and plankton populations at sea. “They’re integral to the system. It’s like a very large corporation in a marketplace—they’re diverse across all areas,” American Bird Conservancy President Mike Parr said. “If that corporation starts to have problems, then it starts showing up everywhere.”

A new study in Science magazine published a change in the population of 529 bird species over a 50-year period. The research team consists of diligent organizations, devoted bird-watchers, and weather satellites that reported a decline of three billion birds. Research revealed that there has been a significant decline of habitat generalists, or birds that can thrive in a wide range of habitats. The severity of the loss of these hardy birds represents the awful conditions all bird species are competing to survive in. “Studies like this do suggest the potential of a [system] collapse,” head at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Richard Gregory said. “These [habitat generalist] birds are an indicator of ecosystem health. And that, ultimately, may be linked to the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems.”

The study in Science did not address the cause for this overwhelming decline, but other studies attempted to pinpoint possible reasons. First, unstable competition might lead to drastic population declines: a study conducted in 2015 predicted that a two-degree increase in ocean temperatures would cause the murre’s competitors (such as bigger fish) to increase their food consumption by up to 70 percent. This meant other predators were devouring the limited pool of prey, making the murre’s food source much smaller. Other researchers link the murre die-off to a colossal mass of warm ocean water—also known as the “Blob”—that spans hundreds of miles across in the Pacific Ocean. During the period that the Blob persisted off the coast of the U.S., production of phytoplankton or microscopic algae dropped, and "the largest harmful algal bloom in recorded history" stretched from California to the Gulf of Alaska in 2015. These vital photosynthetic creatures regulate the production of other populations, notably the important zooplankton. The smaller fish suffered from the lower population of zooplankton, which indirectly challenged marine birds who depended upon their prey fish. Because of the increasing competition and the temperature conditions of the Blob, there was less fish for marine birds to eat. Furthermore, these fish were smaller and in worse physical condition, thus necessitating that the marine birds catch and eat more to survive. "These are high-energy birds with high-energy demands. If they don't eat for three to four days, they're dead,” lead author from the U.S. Geological Survey Dr. John Piatt said. Simply put, warmer water means smaller prey—and more competition from other hungry predators.

Grassland birds, such as meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows, took the biggest population hit. Since 1970, they’ve lost 700 million birds across 31 species, equivalent to a 53 percent population loss. The reason for the decline of grassland birds remains unknown.

If the present relationship between humans and the environment continues down this path, there is no hope. There is only hope for a better future when humans stop altering the world and start changing themselves. Change is never big; it starts small with the everyday person. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Seven Simple Acts initiative consists of realistic steps to make the world better for all creatures. These actions include making windows safer by adding screens instead of transparent glass, keeping cats indoors, avoiding pesticides, growing native plants, and using less plastic. Government policy will play a crucial role in bird protection. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was originally enacted to protect the birds from overhunting and poaching at a time when the Snowy Egret was almost hunted to extinction. The law makes it illegal “by any means or in any manner” to hunt, take, capture or kill birds, nests, or eggs from listed species without a permit. Recently, the Trump administration proposed a “clarification” in the protection, one that cuts back bird protection in order to “increase” business innovation. This policy allows businesses to abuse the rights of birds if their “intent” is not to hurt them. Businesses’ duty to keep birds safe is no longer their priority. A federal agent replied that while the effort to minimize harm to the birds was appreciated, protective action was considered “strictly voluntary and not required in any way.” Birds continue to decline even with the intense 40 years of preservation. Now that the Trump administration discourages federal government spending and intervention in bird preservation, many species may be pushed to extinction.

When a class like birds, one that for centuries has adapted to new environments, becomes unable to cope with the rapidly changing ecosystem, this poses a serious question: will humans be able to survive the future to come? The sound of the dead birds is more than a number: it's a tragic story about starving creatures in a heating globe, the cries of a sick ocean that barely thrives, and a mourning for the future. When the Earth thrives in its precious trees and fruits once more, the sound of release will be echoed through the worn-down cities amidst the silence of humans. Remember that the fate of the birds is undoubtedly our own. After all, we breathe the same air, feel the same land, and live in the same world.