This past week, a widely reported article in Science found that since 1970, North American wild bird populations have declined by 30%. In response, conservation organizations banded together to advocate that concerned citizens keep their cats indoors, put tape on their windows, and drink “bird friendly coffee.” This—the massive and continuing decline of wild nature combined with the failure of environmentalists to advocate measures that would actually reverse this decline—is one major reason why we founded The Overpopulation Project.
By Phil Cafaro
“Billions of North American birds have vanished,” reads the headline reporting a new study documenting a staggering decline in North America’s avifauna. “Even common birds are in steep decline, spurring hunt for causes.” According to Kenneth Rosenberg and colleagues, approximately 2.9 billion fewer birds bred in Canada and the United States in 2018 as compared to 1970. Declines occurred across all biomes, with particularly heavy losses in grasslands, boreal forests, and western forests. “Pervasiveness of avian loss across biomes and bird families suggests multiple and interacting threats,” the authors write, concluding: “Our results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification, coastal disturbance, and direct anthropogenic mortality, all exacerbated by climate change, to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna.”
All these “ongoing threats” have been exacerbated by human population increases in North America over the past half century. As bird populations in Canada and the U.S. have declined 30% since 1970, human populations have increased 61% over the same period. While the mechanisms leading to bird losses have been varied, and in some cases complicated, the overall picture is about as subtle as a bulldozer flattening a meadow. Over the past half century, human beings have displaced birds and other wildlife. More people and ever larger human economic support systems have meant fewer birds.
I looked in vain for any recognition of this basic problematique in the new Science article, in the reporting on it in major news outlets, or in the responses from conservation organizations. The latter was perhaps the most disappointing. In response to the article, a number of bird conservation organizations have set up a website called 3 Billion Birds Gone. Branded as a call to action, its timid “7 simple actions you can do to help birds” instead read like a caricature of ineffectiveness. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense to keep cats indoors or buy shade grown coffee. But well-meaning North American bird lovers could do all these things and birds would still continue to decline. Sure, we should avoid using unnecessary pesticides on our home lawns. But until laws are in place banning neonicotinoids, not just among bird lovers but among the general population and especially farmers, the birds will continue to disappear.
The one serious call to political action that I found came from David Yarnold, President of the National Audubon Society. Saying the new study provides conclusive evidence of a “bird emergency,” Yarnold called on the federal government to cancel plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; to pass and fully fund plans to restore the Great Lakes and Florida’s greater Everglades ecosystem; and to improve water conservation in the Colorado River basin, so that more water can be left in the river and adjacent wetlands. All good and necessary proposals, focused on preserving or enhancing critical bird habitat, the key issue. Still, what is the point of restoring the Everglades’ water flow, if we are going to keep paving over Florida’s truck farms and wetlands with new subdivisions to accommodate more people? What is the point of improved water conservation along the Colorado River, if we are just going to use the savings to accommodate further population growth in California and Arizona, rather than keeping more water in the river?
We have just been given a study telling us that more than one in four wild birds has disappeared from North America in less than fifty years. Yet even bird lovers, apparently, are not yet willing to ask whether we should halt the growth in numbers of people in North America to avoid losing another quarter of our birds. Even conservation biologists write as if the question of how to share the landscape with other species had nothing to do with how many people are living on it. The one “simple thing” that would do the most to help us turn this problem around—stabilizing the population of North America, or better yet allowing it to become smaller over time—remains shrouded in silence. But not here at TOP! We will continue to speak plainly about the issue that underlies all of the environmental struggles the world faces today – human overpopulation.