The Current

With 1 in 8 bird species at risk of extinction, citizen scientists are helping to track their numbers

A new report from BirdLife International warns that bird populations are in steep decline — but it also suggests a love of nature is the key to preserving it.

Humans causing gradual increase in extinction risk for birds, says report

A human hand holding a small bird. Its head is poking out through the fingers.
A golden crowned Kinglet at Ruthven Park, a conservation area in southern Ontario. A new report suggests that half of the world's bird species are in decline. (Brianna Gosse/CBC)

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Originally published on Oct. 7, 2022.

A report that estimates North American bird populations have fallen by almost 3 billion in the last 50 years is "deeply concerning" for the health of the entire planet, says the study's lead author.

"Nearly half of the world's bird species are in decline, while only six per cent are increasing," said Lucy Haskell, a science officer with BirdLife International, the U.K.-based research group that published the findings. 

"These declines mean that one in eight of the world's bird species is now at risk of extinction," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

She added that more species are deteriorating than improving, which means the overall risk of extinctions is gradually increasing. 

"We're likely to lose many more bird species over the coming decades if we don't take action soon," she said.

A composite image of two people out in a conservation park.
Carolyn Bennett, left, and Brian Pomfret help to collect data on birds at Ruthven Park, a conservation area in southern Ontario. (Brianna Gosse/CBC)

This decline has wider significance because birds are widespread, well monitored, and responsive to changes in their environment, Haskell said. That means there's a wealth of information "that we can use to infer things about the health of nature more widely."

"Birds can act as biodiversity indicators … as a barometer for the overall health of our planet," she said. 

Published every four years, this is the fifth edition of BirdLife International's State of the World's Birds report. It's compiled, in part, using data collected from citizen scientists all over the world, including here in Canada. 

At Ruthven Park, a conservation area in southern Ontario, Brian Pomfret heads out four mornings a week during the fall migration, checking traps for birds he can record and tag.

"They come flying along — it's a fine nylon mesh … so they hit it and form a little pocket and get tangled in," he said. 

Pomfret removes the birds from the mesh and carefully places them in cloth bags. Back in the banding shed, he records their weight and species. If they've already been tagged with a band around their foot, he records the details. If not, he bands them himself. 

A bird trapped in a net
A woman removes a bird from a net.
Top: birds become trapped in the net at Ruthven Park. Bottom: Bennett untangles one so it can be recorded. (Brianna Gosse/CBC)

The bands have unique identifier numbers; he and his team have caught the same blue jay eight years in a row. 

Another volunteer, Carolyn Bennett, walks the trails to count how many birds are passing through.

"I do a count, at least a general count in my head on how many I'm seeing, so that I can get a rough estimate of how many birds are here," said Bennett, who is an avid birder.

"It's very exhilarating … to see something different and unusual is always, always very exciting."

Diverse threats driven by humans

Birds are facing a diverse range of threats, including the expansion and intensification of agriculture; unsustainable logging and forest management practices; and hunting and trapping for pets, food, sport or use in traditional medicine, Haskell said.

They also face threats from invasive species that have migrated around the world with humans, with cats estimated to kill 350 million birds every year.

"It's the feral cat population that is the biggest issue, so something that all cat owners can do to help is have your cat neutered," Haskell said. 

But while those threats are varied, Haskell said "they're ultimately caused by us, by humans."

The report's findings are consistent with the challenges in Canada, said Nicky Koper, a professor at the University of Manitoba's Natural Resources Institute.

She said the birds most affected in Canada are those whose grassland habitats are affected by agriculture, and insect-eating birds whose food source is threatened by the use of pesticides. 

"We have tremendous declines in both those groups, but we see declines absolutely across the board and all across Canada," said Koper, who runs a lab focused on bird conservation biology.

Koper said that climate change is currently only "very lightly linked with" the decline in bird populations, but she expects it will play a bigger role in future, making existing problems worse.

Bags hang on hooks against the inside wall of a wooden shed. There are live birds in each bag, waiting to be tagged.
Two human hands hold a small bird and use a tool to attached a band to its foot, tagging it.
Top: the birds are brought to a shed in cloth bags. Bottom: they are then recorded and given identifier bands. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Haskell said conservation efforts must include restoring habitats that at-risk birds rely on.

"For those bird species that are already on the brink of extinction, we need to really target recovery efforts. So using things like captive breeding programs and supplementary feeding," she said.

Nature is in real trouble, and I think we are rapidly running out of time to solve this biodiversity crisis.- Lucy Haskell, BirdLife International

The public also needs greater education on the importance of biodiversity and conservation, she added.

"A lot of these changes ultimately need to come from government, but … we need to hold our governments accountable," Haskell said.

The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) is being held in Montreal in November, when world governments will agree on a new set of goals to protect the natural world through 2040.

These targets need to be specific, and achievable in a defined timeframe, Haskell said. She added that there also needs to be measures in place to track progress, "so we know whether or not each nation has actually reached the targets that they said they would."

A human hand holding a small bird. Its head is poking out through the fingers.
A grey tufted titmouse at Ruthven Park. Once the birds have been recorded and tagged, they are released. (Brianna Gosse/CBC)

Haskell wants to see action, as she believes the situation has reached a "turning point."

"Nature is in real trouble, and I think we are rapidly running out of time to solve this biodiversity crisis," she said.

"I dread to think what will happen if we don't manage to do it this time around, but it certainly won't be good."

Audio produced by Amanda Grant and Brianna Gosse.

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