Watch Birds to Save the Planet

This week, news outlets reported on a study finding that North America has 29% fewer birds today than it did in 1970. While the news was sad, it wasn’t surprising. Populations of all sorts of wildlife, from bears to frogs to fish, are declining around the world. Habitat loss is the main driver, but species are also losing out to climate change, pollution and hunting.

This global biodiversity crisis hasn’t spared North American birds, of course. But the base year of the study — 1970 — struck me. 1970 was right before the creation of the EPA, the passing of the Endangered Species Act, and the banning of the pesticide DDT. Now, the U.S. is only one part of North America. But it’s a significant part. And despite those safeguards, we’ve still seen a 29% drop in bird populations. I’m frightened to imagine what those numbers be without those achievements.

The data gets worse for some species. Eastern Meadowlark populations dropped by about 70%. For Evening Grosbeaks, it’s about 90%. The study authors note that populations of some species, like birds of prey and waterfowl, increased (birds of prey most likely because of the ban on DDT). But those increases aren’t enough to temper the general plummet in the avifauna population. And we now have 3.2 billion fewer birds.

A Carolina Wren, one of North America’s many birds species. Photo by Melissa LeGette on Unsplash

The authors propose things we can do to mitigate threats to birds. They recommend putting stickers on your windows to keep birds from flying into them, as well as refraining from pesticides and reducing plastic use. They also recommend keeping your cats indoors, because, if you haven’t heard, cats are the leading cause of bird death in North America. (That’s right, Mr. Fluffy and Corporal Whiskerton kill 2.6 billion birds every year. Billion. Keep your cats inside, folks.)

But their last suggestion is birdwatching.

Yes, birdwatching, or birding, as us birders say. This infamously stuffy and unfashionable hobby is the butt of many a joke related to one’s general dweebiness. But birding can help save the planet in more than a few ways. And I promise it’ll be fun. Promise.

The study authors say they want more people out watching birds to get better data. That’s a real thing — many birders input their sightings onto eBird, a popular birding website. The site helps birders keep their own lists, such as a Life List, the list of bird species you’ve seen in your life. (Here’s a link to mine.) But those sightings also go into a massive database of bird knowledge that scientists use to model bird population trends. Through eBird, ornithologists mobilize a citizen’s army of birders around the world to gather data.

Cooler than you think. Promise. Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

But birding can help the planet in another way. When we spend more time in nature, we’re more appreciative of nature. When we spend that time really looking around us as we search for wildlife, that appreciation grows even more. Out in the field, binoculars in hand and eyes sifting through the branches, I’m calm and focused. Hours can pass and I’ll barely notice — I’m too busy looking for a glimpse of that Blue Grosbeak I heard was hopping around these bushes or scanning through a group of shorebirds to find a potential rare species hidden between the hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers.

And I’m not the only one. Birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America and outlets like The New York Times are publishing stories on the new cool factor of birders. Not only are these birders getting out of the house and into the world, they’re likely to be more passionate advocates for local and global conservation. I mean, if we don’t protect habitat, where will those birders get their fix of Spring warbler migration?

It’s easy to get started. Buy a local bird guide (or download one as an app on your phone) and go to the nearest park, forest or wetland. If you own binoculars, great, use them. If not, start without them. See what you can find. Write that down. Make an eBird account if you’re so inclined — it’s free, and there’s an app. Maybe you’ll spot a species you’ve never seen. Maybe you’ll find something amazing — one time I saw a standoff between a Bald Eagle and a Great Blue Heron. Or maybe you won’t find anything amazing. (But you might.)

Me, wandering off into a swamp in Costa Rica in college looking for a rare bird.

Almost everyone I’ve ever taken birdwatching was skeptical of the day’s pursuit. But every single one of those people had more fun than they thought they would. I started birding in college, after picking up a field guide on a whim at a nature reserve. Since then, birding has changed the way I live in the world. I’m always curious to know who’s hiding in the brush or what species might have made the nest in that tree, over there. I’ve made friends birding, seen more of the world because of birding, and became a more passionate conservationist because of birding.

Imagine an army of birders — watching the planet, caring about the planet, protecting the planet. Because we need you out there fighting for more protections — clearly the ones we have aren’t enough.

So trust me or don’t — I can’t force you to learn the difference between a Snowy Egret and Great Egret. But you might not have much longer to find out for yourself.

Conservationist, storyteller, semi-professional Ira Glass impressionist.

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