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Birds in Decline

"Silent Spring" (1962) by Rachel Carson warned that continued widespread and indiscriminate use of pesticides could result in extensive ecological damage.

No doubt many of you are familiar with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962 the book warned that continued widespread and indiscriminate use of pesticides could result in extensive ecological damage, including the death of songbirds, resulting in a “silent spring” when no songbirds would be heard. It is hard to imagine such a thing, but it looks as if we may be experiencing quieter springs.

Someone recently commented that they could not recall hearing the call of a mourning dove during the summer. Mourning doves are a species of both rural and urban areas. It might surprise some of you, but mourning doves are the most popular game bird in North America, with a global population of around 150 million birds. As such, they are not a species of concern. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey has shown mourning doves to be declining by 0.4% per year from 1966-2019. That might not sound like much, but that is a 20% drop in the population. The cause for the decline is still speculative, but more intensive large-scale agriculture, removal of shelter belts, and habitat factors are suspect.

So, it is hard to explain why someone would not hear mourning doves in an urban area throughout a summer here in North Dakota. But we may hear less of these and other songbirds in the future, unless something changes.

There are an estimated 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds in North America than in 1970 according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. Many, perhaps all landscapes are losing their ability to support bird populations. Even common species have undergone staggering losses. Forest birds are down 22% since 1970. Shorebirds are down 37% since 1974. Grassland birds are down 53% since 1970. The eastern meadowlark, 20% remaining from 1970 populations. Overall, that is a net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance.”

There have been some successes of course, eagles and giant Canada geese come to mind. But unless we can change the trajectory of the many other bird populations, those familiar songs of summer, mourning doves… meadowlarks… will not be so common during our North Dakota summers. They are already less common than when many of us were kids.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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