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How to Fix the Bird Declines: A To-Do List for Government, Business, and Individuals

By Gustave Axelson
Rancher by Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media
"We have an economic ally for grasslands in ranchers. Ranching can be a form of agriculture that sustains biodiversity and creates win-wins for ecology and economics."
—Arvind Panjabi, coauthor of the Science article and avian conservation scientist, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. Photo by Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media.

From the Autumn 2019 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The story is not over,” says Michael Parr, director of American Bird Conservancy and coauthor of the study published in the journal Science that shows massive bird declines in the U.S. and Canada over the past 50 years.

The scientists who produced this research believe it’s possible to bring birds back, even in the face of the strong headwinds blowing against environmental policy these days. The climate fight, maybe surprisingly, may provide a model. Despite the U.S. federal government’s announced intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United States may still come close to meeting its 2025 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to the cooperation and climate commitments of 22 states, 550 cities, and 900 companies.

Collective action at a national scale could reverse the bird losses, the scientists say, but the U.S. and Canada must come together—as nations, economic powers, and people.

Government Leadership on Bird Conservation Desperately Needed

More than 100 years ago (in the middle of World War I), the U.S. and Canada made birds a priority by making a Migratory Bird Treaty to reflect the will of the people—that birds be protected as a shared international natural heritage. It seems inconceivable that an international treaty on birds could pass political muster today, with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack in the U.S. and efforts to weaken environmental laws in both countries. But there are also bills and policies in the works in Congress and Parliament that could respond to the current crisis in North America’s avifauna.  

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (U.S.):
Introduced in the House with bipartisan sponsorship, this bill would increase federal funding for state conservation programs by more than 1,500%—a game changer for locally led habitat conservation. The bill redirects $1.4 billion of existing annual revenue from Treasury funds (without asking more of taxpayers or businesses) toward state and tribal wildlife conservation plans. The money would be used for habitat conservation projects that could benefit more than 500 U.S. bird species.  More about the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act [PDF].

Bird-Safe Buildings Act (U.S.):
This bipartisan House bill would require that federal government buildings under construction or alteration incorporate bird-safe building materials and design features to limit risks of bird collisions.  

Migratory Bird Treaty Act/Convention (U.S./Canada):
The Migratory Bird Protection Act, proposed in the U.S. House, would restore the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s prohibition on incidental take, reversing a recent policy change. In 2017, the Trump Administration weakened the Act so that companies that kill birds through negligence (such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 1 million birds) would no longer be subject to penalties. Canada has made no such change on its end of the treaty: “The Government of Canada continues to interpret the century-old Migratory Bird Convention as to prohibiting the incidental take of migratory birds,” said Gabrielle Lamontagne of Environment and Climate Change Canada.  

Convention on Biological Diversity (Canada):
The Convention on Biological Diversity is a United Nations agreement signed in 1994 to increase the global area set aside for habitat conservation. Every U.N. member nation has joined the effort (except the United States, because the Senate never ratified the treaty). Meanwhile, in 2018 Canada committed $1.35 billion to double its nation’s protected area and meet its treaty target. The funding has created several new reserves, including Thaidene Nene national park in the Northwest Territories. Formed in a partnership between federal, territory, and First Nations governments, Thaidene Nene is more than twice the size of Yellowstone and home to more than 10 million breeding birds.

Bird-Friendly Business Is Taking Flight

When the governments of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico created NAFTA, they recognized that companies throughout North America, joined by free trade, also share responsibility for the continent’s natural resources.

I don’t think any of these major declines among birds are hopeless at this point. But that may not be true 10 years from now.
~ Ken Rosenberg, Science article lead author and Cornell Lab of Ornithology/American Bird Conservancy conservation scientist

More About the Bird Declines and How to Help

That’s why they also created a North American Bird Conservation Initiative agreement in 1999 that recognizes birds as an international “natural economic resource”; that agreement is still in effect today. Threats to birds are also threats to business—deforestation, pollution, and climate change also threaten steady supply chains, stable pricing, and economic growth. The good news: Many good business sustainability efforts are already underway in five of the economic sectors that have the most impact on birds.  

Paper/Wood Products:
Sustainably sourced wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or Rainforest Alliance come from forest habitats that will continue to produce timber and support birds. Every company that buys anything that comes from a tree—from printer paper, napkins, and paper bags to furniture and building materials—can help birds by choosing certified sustainable forest products.  

Agriculture (in the U.S. and Canada):
Grass-fed beef tastes better and is a premium selling point for consumers, which provides ranchers with a financial incentive to restore healthy grasslands. Several conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, are helping ranchers with cattle grazing management that’s better for beef and birds.  

Agriculture (in Latin America):
There are almost 150 Neotropical migratory bird species in the U.S. and Canada that fly south to Latin America. American and Canadian companies have an ethical responsibility to ensure their supply chains are not deforesting wintering habitat for those birds. Certifications such as Smithsonian Bird Friendly (for coffee) and Rainforest Alliance (for coffee, chocolate, fruit, and beef) can help guide consumers and their purchasing power toward food that supports forests.  

Commercial Fisheries:
Companies that rely on seafood have a stake in ensuring stable fisheries, which also support seabirds. Monterey Bay Aquarium has partnered with 300 business partners on seafood selling and purchasing that improves the sustainability of global fisheries and aquaculture.  

The phasing out of fossil fuels will help birds and their habitats by reducing impacts from climate change. Programs such as The Nature Conservancy’s “Site Wind Right” campaign are guiding the next generation of renewable energy projects by consulting on wind turbine placement in areas with limited disruption to breeding areas and migratory corridors for wildlife.

7 simple things to help birds, graphic by Sarah Seroussi. Wood Thrush by John Petruzzi/Macaulay Library.
Graphic by Sarah Seroussi. Wood Thrush by John Petruzzi/Macaulay Library.

Everybody Can Help by Taking 7 Simple Actions

More than 50 million people say they like to watch birds in the U.S. and Canada, which means there’s an army of people who can help birds by their everyday actions and make a big difference.

“The loss of birds is not an inexorable process,” says Ken Rosenberg, lead author on the Science study and conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “If we take simple actions, we can reverse these bird declines.”

Visit the 7 Simple Actions page for more information on these everyday, at-home steps that can help birds. You’ll find a summary of each problem, description of the simple action that leads to a solution, and links to additional resources.

There’s even an illustrated checklist that you can print out and hang on your refrigerator. Then go a step farther and share the 7 Simple Actions on social media; each action has a shareable infographic or video that’s perfect for spreading the word.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library