Categories
Conservation

How Technology (and You) Can Protect Birds

Some will argue we’ve connected with technology and lost touch with nature. But, perhaps technology is now beginning to help us get back to nature. We’re becoming more aware once again of our natural environment and the human effect upon it. Technology is increasingly helping bird conservation efforts in the backyard and in the wild. 

Whooper Swan With Satellite Tag
A Whooper Swan Fitted With a Satellite Tag. Image by Fiona Grant via Flickr

In this article, we’ll cover a few of the ways technology can protect birds. First, we’ll look at national and global efforts using drones, tags, and satellites. Then, we’ll discuss some tech we can all use in our backyards. And, also ways to easily report bird sightings to help conservation efforts!

Drones, GPS Tags and Satellites

Bird tracking was revolutionized by smaller transmitters, launched in 1984, that use the ARGOS satellite network. Then, in recent years, even lighter-weight sensors, geolocators, and tiny nanotags allow ornithologists and scientists to understand bird behavior and migration in acute detail. For example, the bar-tailed godwit travels 11,000km from West Alaska to New Zealand. From one of these birds carrying a solar-powered location device, we know it flapped its wings for an entire 239 hours and covered 13,000km.

Bar-tailed Godwits Flying
Image by Steve Arena via Flickr

Today, the International Space Station (ISS) can receive data from tiny GPS tags, and mobile phone networks are used for tracking. The US National Weather Service (NWS) Doppler radar stations can track bird migration. What’s more, decades and millions of weather radar images can now be analyzed by powerful computers and AI to calculate how the number of migratory birds has changed. Scientists estimate a third, around three billion, of North America’s birds have disappeared. Quantifying bird population loss is a key way these technologies can protect birds.

Furthermore, building operators in the US are now using monitoring technologies in apps like BirdCast. These can forecast heavy migration patterns and then encourage the dimming of building lights to prevent collisions. This type of technology may be useful in the future to prevent collisions with wind turbines. 

Drones, too are helping to map migration and bird populations. They can provide unprecedented views of nests. Like this Osprey nest from Audubon magazine, and also of remote colonies. They can collect data, monitor birds in their natural habitats without human intervention, as well as identifying threats and climate impacts. Drones also deliver conservation equipment.

AI & Identification- A New Technology In Conservation

A report by WILDLABS.net found artificial intelligence (AI) was one of the top three new technologies in conservation. Not only can AI identify species, as with Nest Box Live, but it can also pick out rare species from thousands of photos or hours of recordings. It can also identify a bird or animal call. All this saves conservationists hours of time and provides valuable data to support conservation efforts. 

Notably, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell Institute for Computational Sustainability are developing a tool to model patterns in nature for bird species and for ecosystems across continents. This team is using data from 9 million checklists provided by 900,000 birders who use Cornell Lab’s eBird. The information is also combined with data from 72 environmental variables. The eBird program and app can be used by backyard birders and ornithologists alike to report bird sightings and explore bird hotspots based on data from the latest bird sightings. Of the AI tool in development, Cornell researcher Courtney Davis says:

“This method uniquely tells us which species occur where, when, with what other species, and under what environmental conditions. With that type of information, we can identify and prioritize landscapes of high conservation value – vital information in this era of ongoing biodiversity loss.”

A GPS Tagged Seaside Sparrow
A Seaside Sparrow with a GPS Tag. Image by Jack Rogers via Flickr.

Growing Awareness

The fantastic array of bird identification apps, smart garden nest boxes, and bird feeders are helping bird conservation in a big way, right at home. These technologies can protect birds by raising our awareness of the abundance of nature around us. 

These interactive, engaging apps and tools teach us about species and behaviour. But, also about rare birds and threats to bird populations. In addition, this growing awareness creates new generations of birders and conservationists, and the impact of conservation campaigns gets stronger. 

How Can You Use Technology To Protect Birds?

Backyard birders can easily contribute to bird conservation efforts right from their own homes. These “citizen scientists” now play a vital role in research and engagement in conservation efforts. We’ve already touched on the impact citizen scientists have had in Cornell’s project, contributing 9 million checklists to form a key part of the data set for the tool. BirdLife International explains:

“Anyone can be a citizen scientist. Community volunteers are especially useful in big projects where scientists need to gather information from across the whole country, or even the whole world. In these situations, there are not enough qualified scientists to carry out this research all by themselves, so the help of the general public is vital.”

Citizen Science Bird Monitoring
Image by North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences via Flickr

Being a citizen scientist as a backyard bird enthusiast is easy. You can simply take photos videos, and report sightings. This is all made more accessible with AI-powered bird identification tools and mobile applications. As a result, you can have a role in using the technology that can protect birds.

Past and current programs where citizen scientists and birders make a difference:

Cornell Lab – eBird (current) 

Cornell Lab  – NestWatch (current)

Cornell Lab – Project FeederWatch (current)  

RSPB – Big Garden Birdwatch (Every year in January) 

The Great Backyard Bird Count (Every year in February)

BirdLife International – Spring Alive Programme (2022)

The eBird Mobile app is free; you can use it year-round to report bird sightings. The Merlin Bird ID app, powered by eBird, is also free and can identify birds in four fun ways. Birda is another free app where you can share sightings and participate in gamified bird challenges. 

If you have a Nest Box Live or are considering purchasing one, this AI-powered birdhouse camera system automatically detects different bird species. It sends notifications to your smartphone and live streams nest box videos to social media. You can help to raise awareness of the wonders of backyard birds. Share amazing nest box videos (like these) and even report your observations to Cornell Lab using eBird or NestWatch!

Categories
Conservation

The Bird Extinction Crisis in North America

The devastating decline in bird populations across North America frightens backyard birders and scientists alike.

The numbers are staggering, and sadly, most people are completely unaware of the ongoing and worsening bird extinction happening not only in our wild spaces and across every wild biome, but also in our backyards.

Knowing the numbers and what birds are at high risk spreads awareness and encourages everyone to be a part of the solution. Let’s look at the numbers.

The Endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow
The Saltmarsh Sparrow, listed as Endangered in 2020. Image by Evan Lipton via Flickr.

Bird Extinction and Endangerment 

Birds are experiencing a long-drawn major extinction event, primarily due to humans. Over the last 20,000 to 50,000 years, ten to twenty percent of avian species have fallen prey to extinction. This is not a natural occurrence. 

Three to four species would disappear in a 500-year timespan if left untouched. Instead, we are causing an acceleration of loss, leading to upwards of 187 species in the last 500 years. 

The Facts and Figures of North American Bird Decline

The facts don’t lie. Birds are in a dire situation and need our help. How bad is it? 

What Bird Species Are Considered At-Risk of Extinction?

The Endangered Tricolored Blackbird
The Endangered Tricolored Blackbird. Image by Travis Williams via Flickr.

The list of at-risk birds is, unfortunately, far too long to share in this article. For a more in-depth listing, refer to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the listing provided in the US FWS Birds of Conservation Concern publication. 

Endangered Birds of North America

Here, we share some of the most commonly known and appreciated birds teetering on the brink of extinction:

  • California Condor
  • Whooping Crane
  • Tricolored Blackbird
  • Saltmarsh Sparrow
  • Ivory-billed Woodpecker
  • Ashy Storm-petrel
  • Brown-Capped Rosy Finch
  • Black Rosy-Finch
  • Marbled Murrelet

The Tipping Point

The tipping point is when a bird population has an immediate need for help as it faces a severe risk of landing on the endangered species list. Species are considered at their tipping point when they have lost fifty percent or more of their population. These species are typically on track to lose the other fifty percent within a short period of time.

Currently, over seventy species are considered at their tipping point. Most species are considered common birds. With over 11% of species already extinct, it is imperative we take action to eliminate the possibility of a future without birds. 

What Causes the Extinction of Bird Species

The California Condor, a Critically Endangered Species
The California Condor, a reintroduced species after its extinction in 1987. Today, it remains critically endangered. Image by Dorothy Sutherland via Flickr.

The current rate of bird extinction is not natural. What is causing the rapid loss of bird populations? There are several factors, but they all link back to one common denominator. Us.

Bird Population Decline Contributing Factors

The primary factors significantly influencing the critical decline in bird populations across North America are listed below:

Is There Hope?

Is it too late to stop the extinction of birds? Can we positively impact the future? The answer- we can, if we start now.

Why should we act to prevent bird extinction?

Birds are biodiversity indicators. This means their health status represents that of the overall habitat. Therefore, if the birds are dying, the ecosystem is too. In the end, this leads to a fatal outcome.

Luckily, there are a lot of actions that can be taken to prevent this disastrous future scenario. Each action helps, both small from the individual standpoint and large from the organizational and governmental standpoint.

How To Save Wild Birds

The Endangered Whooping Cranes
Whooping Cranes, a North American bird species endangered with extinction. Image by Todd Leech via Flickr.

Here are some ways you can help to save the wild birds risking extinction:

  • Write letters to government agencies pleading for the protection of wild birds through needed legislation.
  • Prevent the use of pesticides and fertilizers both in your backyard and by advocating for the elimination of their use in big AG.
  • Plant wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. Research what native birds need to thrive in your location and provide a backyard sanctuary. (Be sure to keep up with your act of kindness! The birds, native and migratory, will come to depend on your backyard oasis.)
  • Donate to bird conservation organizations.
  • Get engaged! Appreciate the birds around you and share that appreciation and newfound knowledge with your peers. The more people that care and the deeper they do so, the more likely it is we can save the future of birds.

Bird Conservation Resources

Getting involved in a community structured around bird conservation is a great place to start your conservation efforts. These organizations typically offer educational resources, in-person philanthropic events, and virtual opportunities to get involved. 

Look for local groups or learn more about resources available through the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, the American Bird Conservancy, and the Audubon organization. National and State parks additionally provide educational programs and volunteer opportunities.

You may also refer to our website, where we regularly share insights, information, and inspiration on all things related to bird conservation. 

Categories
Conservation

The Effects of Climate Change on Bird Species – The Winners and Losers

The earth’s climate is drastically changing and nature is having to adapt as a consequence. The industrial revolution made carbon levels in our atmosphere rapidly increase along with our reliance on fossil fuels. In May of last year, carbon levels reached 424 parts per million – a new record high. 

A Forest Fire Caused By Climate Change
Image by Saunders Drukker via Flickr

Globally, there are approximately 50 billion birds remaining today, that’s 6 for every human being. Without a doubt, anthropogenic-induced climatic change affects birds and pressurises their survival. Of the 632 approximate bird species in Great Britain, 48% are recorded to have decreased since 2015. This has placed both challenges and opportunities on various groups. 

How Does Climate Change Affect Birds?

The pressures bird populations face are multi-faceted and cannot be solely attributed to the climate change impact on birds, although it is a significant factor. Alterations in temperatures, moisture content and precipitation levels are all having major effects on bird communities around the world. These are coupled with issues such as avian flu, land use change, factory farming, intensive pesticide use and hedgerow reduction. 

Bird Flying In The City
Image by UW–Madison CALS via Flickr

Consequently, dedicated researchers are collaborating to conclude which species are winning and which are sadly losing. Species are particularly struggling to shift to new ranges due to advanced fragmentation, human land-use change and intensive farming operations. Populations are also experiencing indirect pressures such as different prey and predator species and exposure to parasites in new environments. These issues are dramatically altering the reproductive success and survival of natural communities. 

Migration

Climate change is also upsetting the distribution of species across regions by shrinking their migratory ranges and seasonal bird behaviours. Many species are arriving in spring breeding grounds unusually early as well as laying eggs earlier due to warming.

The British Trust for Ornithology has calculated that Britain has lost 73 million birds since 1970, most of which are farmland species. This is particularly evident for migratory birds where climate change is affecting both their breeding and over wintering regions. This includes physical effects on their habitat, and reductions in available food sources.

Climate change affects bird migrations by altering the start date of their migration and the location they decide to reside. Due to warmer winters, species are wintering further North and East of Europe, increasing competition over winter food stores.

Long-distance migratory birds such as the Common Sandpiper, already in decline in Europe, struggle due to limited food sources along their migratory path. Species also struggle to alter their arrival date in spring breeding grounds and track the availability of their prey, i.e. insects.

UK Bird Species at Risk Due to Climate Change

With warmer seasons in Southern Britain, food sources are reducing. Consequently, fewer migratory birds are traveling the usual great distances across the Sahara desert. Cuckoo’s arrive in early April to the UK where they are either loved or hated for their distinctive, repetitive, call. They then start their migration in June, or used to. Scientists state that cuckoos are struggling to adjust their internal clocks. Therefore, they face crossing the Sahara in awful conditions or too late when there are no food sources or mates remaining.

Cuckoo Flying
Image by Paul Watts via Flickr

However, the climate change impact on birds is not always detrimental. Some species are taking advantage of the extended warming periods. The Reed Warbler is successfully producing more young every year. UK bird ringers are also welcoming the increasing sightings of Bee-Eaters and Black-Winged stilts, both non-native species. These species were not previously seen in such quantities but have been spotted in Eastern England in flourishing breeding pairs. 

Physical effects

The summer of 2023 saw the waters surrounding the UK rise by 4-5 degrees celsius above average. Warming seas are consequently negatively affecting a variety of marine life such as Sand Eels, a species reliant on cooler waters for survival. They are also key sources of food for Kittiwakes and Puffins which are both critically endangered around the British coastline. The RSPB has petitioned and halted industrial Sand Eel fishing in North Sea waters, backed by 95% of governmental groups. 

Little Terns are also increasingly at risk as more storm surges wipe away their beach dwelling nests. Similarly, Lapwings face losing their nests increasingly due to summertime flooding events which is even more concerning. This is also true for Manx Shearwaters whereby 80% of the world’s population return to the UK in spring to breed.

Rising sea temperatures are also having a dramatic effect on the marine food chain. Zooplankton numbers are diminishing, as are the sprats, other small fish and crustaceans which feed on them. This is all affecting our seabirds, which are dependent on healthy seas to feed themselves.

Puffin Flying With Sand Eels
Image by Jeff Skyes via Flickr, Facebook, X

What Can be Done to Reduce the Climate Change Impact on Birds?

The climate change impact on birds is hugely diverse and constantly changing. As birds adapt their diet or migratory timings we are seeing very different sightings of species in the UK and vast changes in population numbers.

The main takeaway is the resilience of nature when faced with a rapidly warming world. However, we cannot rely on resilience in order to conserve birds. Instead society must incorporate nature-based and friendly solutions across industries. Such solutions put nature at the heart of business ethic and recognise the role bird ringers, volunteers, scientists and enthusiasts have in preserving species diversity. 

Categories
Conservation

Fertilizers and Pesticides: The Fatal Impact on Birds

Can you picture a world without birds? The forests would fall quiet, your backyard feeder would remain empty.

But that’s not the worst of it. If all birds went extinct, it is predicted that every biome on Earth would face a loss of biodiversity so severe it would lead to the rapid destruction of the ecosystem, otherwise known as homogenization.

Juvenile Blackbird
Image by Grigory Shalik via Flickr

This would have fatal implications for all species, including humans. This thought experiment is not the start of a sci-fi novel. Today, scientists fear that future.

They warn us that if we don’t make significant changes within the next ten years, our bird populations may in fact disappear.

Facts Behind Reduction in Bird Populations

A study conducted between 1970 and 2022 found a reduction of more than half of US bird species, a loss of over three billion birds.

Grassland birds, typically seen on farms and in prairies, are experiencing the fastest loss with the well-known backyard birds not far behind at only one-third of their sustainable population size.

Sprague's Pipit
Image by Luke Theodorou via Flickr

This study placed seventy new species on the list of bird groups at their ‘tipping point,’ meaning that fifty percent or more of their population has died off in the last fifty years and they are now at severe risk of extinction.

And it isn’t only the experts chiming in.

Over the last few years, people have been slowing down and observing the natural world around them. Since 2020, bird watching trends have skyrocketed– people turned off their T.V.s and turned their eyes to the sky.

Bird watching apps currently report more incoming data than ever before showing what birds are living where and in what numbers.

Over the last few years, the data has shown reductions in numbers and bird watchers are publicly voicing their concern at the loss of their favorite backyard bird.

The Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell University, and the Soil Association agree that the top causes of bird population declines include climate change, expanding agriculture, unsustainable forest and prairie management, invasive species, domestic cats, and habitat loss.

However, the most fatal factor is fertilizer and pesticide use in large-scale farming, backyard gardening, and landscaping.

“We have the most compelling evidence to date that the dramatic increase in the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers has been the most significant driver of the declines of bird species and numbers” Gareth Morgan, Soil Association Head of Farming Policy

The Main Reason for Reductions in Bird Populations

The number one culprit: Neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a fatal family of pesticides that linger in soil for three years before breaking down.

Areas with 19.43 nanograms per liter or higher in substrates in the environment are shown to experience a 3.5 percent increased loss of bird populations per year.

Tractor Spraying
Image by nicephotog via Flickr

Neonicotinoids are heavily used in commercial farming, but you may be surprised that your backyard pesticide likely falls into this deadly family too.

Have you noticed less chirping out your back window since you started treating your lawn?

Common weed-and-feeds are especially dangerous. Imagine the green space provided by every lawn on your block including shelter, water in the forms of bird baths and puddles, food in the form of insects, seeds, and berries.

Now imagine this resource taken away from the bird population depending on it, or worse, it being poisoned. Your actions at home make a difference.

The proof is in the numbers. Ninety percent of all bird loss consists of common backyard birds, including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches.

The toxin works indirectly to malnourish birds in a myriad of ways. The toxin kills bug populations normally present in healthy, organic soils.

These insects are birds’ primary food source and are especially important during breeding season to sustain themselves and their offspring and to teach the offspring how to hunt.

Insect
Image by Ricardo Japur via Flickr

Birds may also eat seeds doused in the chemical, which can be lethal after only a few days.

Nectar-drinking birds, including hummingbirds, face additional risk due to ingested toxins and loss of plants needed for shelter and food.

Birds are additionally poisoned directly through contaminated drinking water.

Problems with Declining Bird Populations

Declining bird populations means big problems ecosystem-wide.

Birds are one of few biodiversity indicators, meaning their population size and overall health indicate the overall health of the ecosystem in which they live.

Hummingbird
Image by Kevin Schonhofer via Flickr

In short, removing birds from the ecosystem has catastrophic consequences. Birds act as both predator and prey. They control insect populations and comprise a significant portion of several animals’ diets.

Birds are also pollinators and seed dispersers, helping to maintain plant life. They impact every aspect of nature and play a vital role.

Bird conservation consists of agroecological farming approaches using organic practices, sustainable land management, adding green spaces to urban environments, decreasing pollution and water contamination, restoring habitats, and preventing the introduction of invasive species.

As you can see, if we start with a focus on bird conservation, we can save the birds and make a much bigger impact on nature and the quality of human life at the same time. Bird conservation leads to safer environments for us to live in, healthier food sources, less carbon dioxide in the air, flood mitigation, and more. It also ensures the beautiful morning song outside your bedroom window every morning.

What Can You Do To Prevent This?

Bird conservation starts with you. It starts in your backyard first and foremost and continues through your word as you speak out on behalf of the voiceless. There are many things you can do to help.

  • Write to your local government officials about regulatory changes in farming practices and land management.
  • Put pressure on the EPA to take dangerous fertilizers and pesticides off the market by spreading awareness of the problem and speaking out.
  • Fight to list at-risk bird species under the Federal Environmental Species Act to encourage their protection and rehabilitation.
  • Influence food system reform through a nature-friendly diet.
  • Use nature-friendly gardening and landscaping techniques, including bird-safe fertilizer and traditional pest control, such as cornmeal or predatory insects whose species are naturally found in your area.
  • Teach others the benefits of bird conservation.

Birds are loved and appreciated by many. Let’s show them how much we care by saving them from extinction before it’s too late.