EDITORIAL: Bad trend

News of population decline alarming, warrants attention

A recent report that the North American bird population has declined dramatically over the past 50 years is alarming, especially in a region like the Rio Grande Valley, where birds are a big part of the region’s environment, and economy.

But what does the report mean, and what can we do about it?

The Valley benefits from sitting along North America’s largest migratory flyway, and many birds already are heading our way; some pass through, but many make South Texas their winter home.

In fact, the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, is just days away — it’s scheduled Nov. 6-10, with events all across the Valley.

The festival is just weeks behind the Sept. 19 publication of a scary report in the journal Science, which states that since 1970, bird populations in the United States and Canada have fallen by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds.

Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy and a coauthor of the study, said that the decline is diverse over many species, and has many causes.

Parr noted that the declines were the “canary in the coalmine” — if other species are dying off, how might the conditions be affecting humans?

Causes for the decline include loss of habitat, both in North America and the South American winter roosting areas, from wildfires and deforestation. They reduce the availability of berries, insects and other food sources for the birds. Those sources are further reduced by the popular use of pesticides, both agriculturally and in homes.

Predation by growing populations of feral cats and other predators also are having an effect on the birds, Parr said.

Fortunately, the short-term outlook for migratory birds is good. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued migratory bird population forecasts that showed numbers were more or less steady compared to recent years. Goose and swan populations have increased slightly over the past 10 years. The long-term forecast, and its effects, is unknown. Fortunately, we have seen similar declines in recent years among bee and butterfly populations, and both have rebounded. Among bird populations, two types that are seen in the Valley, the peregrine falcon and brown pelican, whose numbers were critically low, have increased recently.

So what can we do to help improve all bird numbers?

Parr suggests reducing pesticide use, and keep cats indoors. He also suggested reducing the use of plastics, as birds that swallow pieces of them are poisoned by the chemicals they emit, and bird-proof windows, since many birds die when they fly into them.

Most important, he said, is to encourage children to become interested in nature and bird watching. If they learn to be good stewards of the environment at a young age, their habits can help address the current conditions that have contributed to population reductions.

Each of the steps seems simple enough. Perhaps these minor changes can help reverse declining bird populations, and ensure that our environment remains livable.