Local Bird Population Decline Catches Birders by Surprise

Knute Berger reflects on how birds add richness to our surroundings

By Knute Berger September 24, 2019


When I was a kid growing up in Seattle I was largely oblivious to birds. We had robins in the neighborhood and occasionally found their cracked blue eggs on the ground in the spring. There were seagulls aplenty. The garbage dump used to be at Union Bay near Husky Stadium where we dumped our trash. Thousands of gulls swirled over what looked like a perpetual battlefield of foul smells, smoke from burning waste, and the roar of bulldozers flattening the waste in dirt trenches. And yes, we fed stale bread to the mallards on Lake Washington walks. But birds were rarely on my mind.

It wasn’t until later in childhood when my family bought a vacation home on Shaw Island in the San Juans that I became more aware of birds. It was thanks to my mother, who carried Roger Tory Peterson’s guide to western birds. From the front window of our A-frame prefab cabin we had a view of a small bay where I heard my mother exclaim as she spotted harlequin ducks, oystercatchers on the reef rock exposed at low tide, bald eagles, mergansers, and buffleheads. We also hoisted a hummingbird feeder on a beautiful madrone next to the deck and in the summer watched the iridescent swarm.

Where I live now, near Union Bay, I feel like the winter water birds from the north are old friends when they begin returning in the late fall for the winter: coots, grebes, and goldeneyes. We have Anna’s hummingbirds year-round, a Bewick’s wren will sometimes peck at the screen on our apartment’s windows. A bright blue Stellar Jay will sometimes hop into a bush next to the open window where I write and sound like a scold: “Have you met your deadline?” it seems to squawk. We get gold finches and starlings and murders of crows, of course. I see more birds here than anywhere I have lived, and am more conscious of their presence.

Especially the Canada geese, who once were rare and now often overrun the lawns outside. I read a book last summer on the latest scientific information on dinosaurs and learned that birds are not simply related to dinosaurs, but are dinosaurs—the offspring of the flying ones that somehow survived the calamity of an asteroid strike that caused a mass extinction. I look at the geese, which sometimes hiss as I walk to my apartment door, and think, “So this is what became of velociraptors.” What will become of humans over millions of year, I wonder?

That extinction was a relatively rapid event. We’re experiencing another, but one apparently caused by humans. I read recently that scientists say that North America has lost 30% of its birds since 1970—a Silent Spring that has turned into to a Silent Half-Century. That’s three billion birds gone.

Ninety percent of the loss is among sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches. Eagles are healthier—I see them almost daily here—but song birds, birds of the grasslands and forests, shorebirds, and the small birds my father, half blind so he couldn’t see them in detail, called “small, brown flitteroonies” are vanishing. The blame is going to development and loss of habitat, pesticides, climate change in breeding zones, among other factors.

The news of this population crisis has caught many birders by surprise—particularly its scale. My wife and I carry binoculars with us on hikes and road trips. We are not hardcore birders, we don’t make lists, but we look, listen and enjoy. I share this love with family members that feel the same way. I walk in Seward Park and see wonderful birds, like kingfishers or pileated woodpeckers. I note such sightings on a chalkboard at the Audubon center there.

But I feel like the bird richness I have felt and seen is something of a fool’s paradise. It is sometimes difficult to spot the slow, steady arrival of scarcity.

The “terrible lizards” once ruled a warmer earth. You can see their bones in the Burke Museum. Now their beautiful remnants—critical to our ecosystems—are struggling millions of years later because of another species that is running rampant as the earth gets warmer again.

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