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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

Three Billion Birds

The Wood Thrush faces multiple threats including building collisions, habitat degradation, and climate change. Photo by Will Stuart.

By Jared Teutsch, Executive Director

Three billion birds … that is the number of birds that have been lost since 1970. A groundbreaking study published in the journal Science in 2019 revealed that more than one in four birds have disappeared from our landscape in the past 50 years, including common birds, like Barn Swallows and Wood Thrush; grassland birds, like Eastern Meadowlarks; and migratory birds, like Baltimore Orioles. These are birds that we see fewer of outside our homes, in parks, and in landscapes all across Georgia, and birds that no longer provide ecosystem services, like pest control, or bring joy to those who enjoy watching them.

Birds are declining due to a myriad of threats ranging from reflective glass and predation by outdoor cats to habitat loss and rampant use of pesticides. Birds are indicator species, and this study should sound the alarm for all of us, as the disappearance of these birds indicates a general shift in our ecosystems’ ability to support basic birdlife. But there’s good news, too. For species that have received conservation funding and attention, like waterfowl, hawks, and eagles, numbers have increased dramatically. Birds are resilient, and they can rebound with our help. 

The study recommends seven simple actions that everyone can take to help #BringBirdsBack. 

    1. Make windows safer, day and night. Up to one billion birds die each year in the U.S. and Canada after colliding with windows. During the day, birds do not see glass as a barrier and are often confused by reflections of trees and shrubs, causing them to fly into buildings. At night, brightly lit buildings further confuse birds, resulting in additional collisions. But you can help by treating problem windows to break up the reflection. Solutions exist for problem windows, and bird-safe glass is readily available for new construction. By simply turning out the lights between the hours of midnight and 6:00 AM during peak migration each fall and spring, you can give birds a better chance of completing their migratory journeys. Learn more about Georgia Audubon’s work to prevent collisions and our Lights Out Georgia effort at www.georgiaaudubon.org/lights-out-georgia
    2. Keep cats indoors. It is estimated that cats kill as many as 2.6 billion birds annually. Cats are instinctive, non-native predators and will hunt and kill birds, even when they are well fed. Keeping your cats indoors is better for their overall health and makes our landscapes safer for birds. 
    3. Reduce lawn, plant native plants. Traditional turf grass lawns are nutritional deserts for birds and other wildlife, and the chemical load required to maintain them is bad for the environment. Consider replacing at least a portion of your lawn with native plants that will add interest and beauty while also creating food and resting habitat for birds and other wildlife. For a list of resources, visit www.georgiaaudubon.org/sanctuary-resources.
    4. Avoid pesticides. More than one billion pounds of pesticides are applied in the United States each year, and the most widely used pesticides are neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” that are lethal to birds and to the insects that birds consume. Purchasing organic produce when possible and reducing the pesticide use in your home, garden, and landscape is good for you and for the birds.
    5. Drink coffee that’s good for the birds. Your morning cup of coffee can help birds! Three quarters of the world’s coffee is grown on large, monoculture farms that destroy habitat in areas where many migratory Georgia birds spend their winter months. Shade-grown coffee is a delicious alternative that not only benefits the small coffee farmers who grow it, but these shaded farms also provide critical wintering habitat for more than 42 species of North American songbirds. Georgia Audubon partners with Café Campesino to offer a shade-grown organic coffee that is good for birds and people, too. Learn more at www.georgiaaudubon.org/coffee-and-chocolate
    6. Protect our planet from plastic. Plastic is everywhere, in our homes, landfills, and, sadly, in our oceans and forests, too. Plastics take more than 400 years to degrade and 91 percent of plastic is not recycled, posing a threat to birds, marine mammals, and other wildlife that mistake it for food or become entangled in it. You can help by avoiding single use plastic whenever possible and choosing reusable items instead.
    7. Watch birds, and share what you see. Monitoring birds is critical to helping scientists determine what species of birds need help and how we can best support their populations. Gathering data on the world’s 10,000 bird species would not be possible without the help of community members who report what they’re seeing in the backyards, parks, and wild spaces. Through programs like eBird, Project FeederWatch, Christmas Birds Counts, and others, individuals can record what birds they are seeing and provide critical information for researchers studying bird populations. Learn more about how you can get involved at www.georgiaaudubon.org/community-science.  

If you’re interested in learning more about this groundbreaking study or implementing some changes to help birds, visit www.3billionbirds.org.  You can also make a difference by becoming involved with Georgia Audubon … as a member, a donor, or a volunteer. Georgia Audubon is building places where birds and people thrive. 

Whether you choose to drink shade-grown coffee, turn out the lights of birds, keep your cats indoors, or add a few native plants to your landscape, together we’re working to #BringBirdsBack.


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