Bill Henke remembers seeing red-headed woodpeckers all the time as a kid.
The eye-catching birds — sometimes referred to as “flying checkerboards” because of their boldly-patterned black-and-white bodies and crimson heads — were easily seen and fun to watch as they caught insects in mid-air and stashed acorns in the crevices of tree trunks.
“As a child, red-headed woodpeckers abounded,” Henke recalls. “That’s changed in my lifetime… Now if you see a red-headed woodpecker, it gives you pause and you go, ‘Wow!’”
Data from the federal Breeding Bird Survey shows Minnesota’s red-headed woodpecker population has declined by 95% over the past 50 years — the biggest loss experienced by any state. Overall across its range, the bird’s population has dropped by 67%.
The red-headed woodpecker is an extreme example, but its plight is not unique: all across the North American continent, birds are disappearing.
Birding clubs, conservation groups and environmental researchers have been tracking and reporting on avian population declines for decades. But last month, a report published in Science magazine revealed that the cumulative numbers are worse than anyone thought: There’s been a loss of 3 billion birds, or roughly 30% of the total bird population, since the 1970s.
The report described a comprehensive study by researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, who compiled and analyzed locally-collected survey data, as well as weather radar data, to calculate population changes for 529 bird species in the U.S. and Canada. Their results take into account any shifts in habitat or species replacement, meaning the 3 billion number represents a net loss.
Henke, a Detroit Lakes resident who serves as co-president of the Prairie Woods chapter of the Izaak Walton League and is a self-described conservationist, says the study’s findings are concerning, but not necessarily surprising.
“It’s something birders have talked about for a long time,” he says of the population declines. “We are really losing lots of treasured species."
Cornell researchers suspected there'd be losses among some rarer bird species, Science reported, but thought there’d be strong enough gains among other more common, resilient species to balance out the overall bird population. Ken Rosenberg, a leading author of the study, is quoted in the report as saying, “I frankly thought it was going to be a wash.”
Instead, steep declines far outnumbered any gains. While the study found that waterfowl and raptor populations are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts, many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grassland and boreal forest habitats, are struggling.
Grassland birds (meadowlarks, sandpipers, bobolinks and others) have declined by 53%, according to the study. Boreal forest birds are down by about 30%. Shoreland bird populations have declined by about one-third, and even common birds like sparrows, warblers, finches, starlings and blackbirds have been hit hard, with losses hovering around 40-50% for those species.
“Sparrows are being lost, meadowlarks… the prairie birds,” says Henke. “Those numbers have very significantly plummeted.”
Statistics specific to Minnesota mirror the study's continent-wide findings. The most recent Breeding Bird Survey, which analyzed 210 species in Minnesota, showed negative population trends for 58 percent of those species; 14 percent appeared stable, and 27 percent — including waterfowl and raptors — appeared to be increasing.
The dramatic population changes didn't happen overnight; rather, small, single-digit annual percent changes — a 2% yearly loss in one species here, or a 1% gain in another there — have steadily added up over the decades.
Vanishing habitat, vanishing birds
The red-headed woodpecker is designated a Minnesota Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. According to the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, “habitat loss may be the single most important factor responsible for the species’ decline.”
The bird’s preferred oak-savanna habitat, “like our native prairie, continues to be degraded and developed,” states a post on the DNR’s website. The widespread removal of dead trees, which red-headed woodpeckers need for nesting, is cited as a major factor in their decline from the state.
“As we lost forest and people removed the dead or dying trees... habitat was lost,” says Henke.
Habitat loss is a key factor behind North American bird declines as a whole. The clearing of land for urbanization, agriculture, industrial use, and housing and recreation has significantly altered the natural landscapes and ecosystems that birds rely on for survival.
“We’re taking away their habitat, bottom line,” says Sally Hausken, the founder of Sucker Creek Preserve and a leader in local conservation efforts.
Hausken owns a home on Big Detroit Lake and has worked for years to incorporate as many different species of native plants onto her property as possible, while eliminating as much manicured lawn as she can. She proudly describes her yard as, “the wildest place on the lake,” and says it attracts more birds that way.
“I’ve seen from my own yard how many birds will come and nest on my property, or come to my feeders,” she says. “But I’m just a little postage stamp along the lake. Nobody else on the lake has that (biodiversity), and that is crucial… The birds need more habitat that is to their liking.”
Other factors affecting bird populations include shifts in the food web, collisions with glass windows, pesticides, and outdoor cats. The American Bird Conservancy, a partner in the Cornell study, lists predation by domestic cats as “the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada,” killing approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. The Conservancy also estimates that close to a billion birds die annually by flying into glass windows.
According to the report in Science, low doses of neonicotinoids, a common pesticide, have been shown to make migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of survival. Pesticide use also kills off large numbers of insects, a major food source for many birds.
“Many of the factors that have created the loss of birds are certainly present in the Detroit Lakes area,” says Henke. “Everything from habitat loss to forest fragmentation, pesticide use to … housecats. Those are things that are very real for us here.”
Yet another factor is climate change, which alters landscapes and thus is closely tied to habitat loss. A National Audubon Society report released earlier this month found that Minnesota is in danger of losing several dozen species of birds as Earth's temperature rises.
Minnesota is one of the nation’s fastest-warming states, and a rise of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit would make at least 60 bird species vulnerable, including the state bird, the loon. Birds that are “specialists” — less adaptable to changes in temperature and habitat, like warblers and chickadees — are among the most vulnerable.
Ultimately, the Audubon report determined that two-thirds of all North American bird species could go extinct due to global climate change — a worst-case scenario that can be avoided with reductions in carbon emissions and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
Bringing them back
Past efforts have proven that when people put their minds to saving a bird species, it gets done.
The bald eagle is a perfect example. After the breed became endangered in the 1960s, environmental advocates filed a lawsuit that led to a nationwide ban on DDT, an agricultural pesticide that was causing reproductive issues in the eagles (as well as osprey and other raptors). As a result, the number of bald eagles rose from fewer than 500 nesting pairs to more than 10,000 today.
Rising waterfowl populations are another prime example. After noticing declines in the numbers of ducks and geese available for hunting, organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl came together to invest in wetland restoration and protection efforts. Those efforts worked: Bird populations are up by 10% in wetlands today, even as they’re down everywhere else.
Conservationists are optimistic that success stories like these can be replicated with other bird species through similar efforts. A coalition of conservation groups has already come together to create policy recommendations and an action plan for citizens in response to the findings of the Cornell study — findings that could serve as a wake-up call.
“It isn’t like we need to throw up our hands and say, ‘This is just going to happen,’” says Henke of continued bird losses. “The positive side to this is the call-to-action side. Let’s band together. Let’s think this through. Let’s place a value on these species and let’s rally and save these species.”
In Minnesota, many birds considered vulnerable are already being surveyed and managed by the DNR, as they've been identified as having great conservation needs under the state’s federally mandated Wildlife Action Plan. And thanks to funding from the state’s Legacy Amendment, dozens of habitat restoration projects have been completed over the past decade, and more will be coming. There’s also a restoration program through the Minnesota Land Trust, as well as agricultural conservation programs and other government-backed efforts to preserve and protect the state’s natural resources.
Citizens have been getting in on the action, too: Farmers have been implementing new sustainable agriculture practices in recent years; conservationists like Henke have taken part in citizen-science bird tracking projects; environmentalists like Hausken have traded in their lawns for native plants; and rural property owners are leaving their dead trees where they lie.
“As the consummate consumers that we are, we have a huge impact (on our environment), and the loss of these species is certainly a result of some of our actions,” says Henke. “We have to understand what the implications are for us. When we lose birds, we lose insects, we lose pollinators, it has a very, very real impact on us humans. And we have to take this loss as a very, very real warning for us.”
What can I do?
Apply anti-collision decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them; windowalert.com offers several effective, translucent options
Supervise cats or keep them indoors
Plant less manicured lawn and more native grasses, shrubs, flowers and trees around your yard or community
Avoid pesticides like neonicotinoids
Reduce single-use plastic consumption
Contribute to citizen-science efforts to track bird populations. Locally, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, take place in the Detroit Lakes area and at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge every winter. Volunteers are always needed to go out and count all the different species of birds they see or hear in a day. Watch this newspaper and other local media around early December for information on how to volunteer.
*Suggestions from the American Bird Conservancy