The very factor that has robbed North America of its bird population might be the feathered friends’ last best hope — humans.
As two major research projects released this fall highlight the need for more conservation efforts across the country, avid local birder Don Plant blames a growing population on the decline.
“As urban sprawl increases, that takes away wildlife habitat, and that has been playing a major role now,” Plant said. “Man has played the major role in the decline of bird populations not only in our area, but throughout North America and throughout the world.”
But humans also can be part of the solution. Plant belongs to two organizations in Ashland County that are working toward wildlife preservation.
“In our own area here, the Greater Mohican Audubon Society, we’re trying to do our part to increase attractions for birds in our area, and Byers Woods is a good example of that,” Plant said. “Our Ashland County Parks are doing an incredible job in trying to develop more wildlife habitats. We can be proud of those two groups, that are doing, I think, an outstanding job.”
A report from the National Audubon Society, released in October, looked at the possible impacts of warming temperatures on 600 bird species in North America.
Titled “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” the report indicated climate change could lead to the extinction of two-thirds of America’s birds.
In another study published in September in the journal “Science,” the “Billion Birds” report concluded 2.9 billion birds have vanished across North America since 1970, a decline of roughly 30%.
The Billion Birds study didn’t specifically analyze the causes behind the declining bird populations, but Plant has a few ideas.
As a group, grassland birds, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks, have seen the biggest declines, the Billion Birds report showed. Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53%, or another 720 million birds.
In Ohio, the five species with the greatest declines are grassland birds, including the northern bobwhite, grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, ring-necked pheasant and bobolink, according to the data provided by the USGS.
Locally, Byers Woods serves as a good example of how grasslands affect bird populations. The Ashland County Park District, the county commissioners and Pheasants Forever developed Byers Woods, repurposing a landfill as grassland.
“It’s attracting such birds that are really not necessarily endangered, but on a serious decline,” Plant said.
Another issue is the vanishing of wetlands across the state — over 90% are gone.
“They are somewhat on an increase because of the awareness of the important role the wetlands play — even in our local area,” Plant said. “You go down into the Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area or the Shreve Lake Wildlife Area, and you’ll find the typical wetlands, which plays a very major role for wildlife.”
The loss of their habitats is only part of the issue. The use of pesticides hasn’t done the birds any favors either, Plant said.
“I certainly don’t point the finger at farmers, because they feed our world — they feed all of us,” Plant said. “But the use of pesticides has become a major problem, not only for bird populations, but it affects insect populations that birds consume. So that’s a major food source that they lose.”
In a vicious cycle, as the populations continue to grow, more food is needed to feed the people and that means more pesticide use as more wildlife habitats are turned into farmland, Plant said.
Even issues that seem minor can have a significant impact over time.
“There are other small issues that aren’t so small,” Plant said. “For example, even our cats, our kitties, our little felines — people have got to learn to keep them in their homes. If they let them go out and free roam, they devastate bird populations, even in their own backyards.”
As the chairman of the program and education committee of the Greater Mohican Audubon Society, Plant is keen to educate the public not only on how to save the birds but why it’s important.
Plant works alongside his wife, Diane, a secretary and treasurer for the society, host education programs, speaking to groups about birds and their role in the environment.
“People don’t recognize the important role birds play in our environment,” Plant said. “In the control of insects and the dispersing of seeds and the development of forests and so forth. So many of us just recognize, ‘Oh, they’re a pretty little bird, they have a pretty little song, and they look so pretty in our backyards.’ If they only knew that’s only just a little part of what birds provide for man.”
Much of the information used in both studies came from data collected by bird-watchers, including the Breeding Bird Survey and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. The 120th annual Christmas count began Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5. Nearly 80,000 people participated in last year’s count.
“When we get out in the field, and we’re out bird watching, we recognize certain populations of species, individual species, that we don’t see as much,” Plant said.
But all hope is not lost.
The National Audubon Society’s report notes keeping global temperatures down will help up to 76 percent of the bird population.
“It’s going to cost money to improve these things,” Plant said. “But I think I’d rather see them put money into improving wildlife habitat than I do throwing bullets and rockets over to the Middle East or wherever.”
— Dinah Voyles Pulver of the USA TODAY NETWORK contributed to this story.