This friend is a hunter. But hunting for him this year apparently was poor. “Pheasants are gone,” he wrote, “except for those stocked. I saw two grouse all season and the woodcock either didn’t come in numbers or migrated straight through.” As for waterfowl, “We used to get big flights of ducks here in the late season that fed on adjacent corn fields but that has not been the case in recent years.”
My friend is a bird watcher, too. “The bird feeder which I put up by my deer blind,” he wrote, “gathered mostly chickadees as it is with our kitchen and yard feeders. Our bird observations here over the years are diminished both in number and species.”
Mine too, assuming, as I’m sure he did, he meant birds seen.
A friend who lives in upstate New York, a hunter/bird watcher tells me he doesn’t see as many birds as he used to, either game birds or other birds, smaller birds, dickey birds as many people call them. I say the same thing. But do our observations, our opinions really, mean anything? Neither of us has numbers to back up our opinion. We’ve not made any counts or kept any records.
Other people have counted birds and kept records, however. Many other people. There are Christmas bird counts. There are spring bird counts. There are breeding bird surveys. There are counts of migrants. The Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology has a Feeder Watch Program in which participants, thousands of people, list birds seen at their feeders, both species and numbers. From what I’ve read of all these reports, birds have declined in number.
Not all birds have declined. Some have increased. Starlings haven’t declined. Red-winged blackbirds nested almost exclusively in cattail marshes a hundred years ago but have adapted to nesting in uplands as well as marshes thereby expanding their nesting range and have increased greatly. Cardinals have expanded their range north and increased in number. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons and sandhill cranes have all increased.
Bobwhite quail, however, have decreased by an estimated eighty percent. Evening grosbeaks have decreased by an equal amount. Meadowlarks, both eastern and western, bobolinks, red-headed woodpeckers, woodcock, as my New York friend mentioned, and many more species have declined in number. A recent report by the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society states that one in four species of bird in North America is in decline.
Birds are declining in other areas as well as North America. But I see and hear about the decline in North America, at least parts of North America. I see the reasons, too. Those reasons are summed up by the acronym HIPPO. The letters stand for habitat loss, that’s cutting, mowing, development; invasive species, including plants and diseases; population growth, human population which leads to more habitat loss and the next letter; pollution, including spreading poisons on the land, in the water and in the air; and, finally, in the case of game birds, over harvesting though hunting seasons and bag limits largely control this problem.