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Drew Monkman: Three billion birds are gone from Peterborough and around the world

3 26 0
10.10.2019

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, the Peterborough Field Naturalists made an annual June visit to Harry William's farm near Millbrook. This was not your average nature outing. You were expected to arrive no later than 4 a.m.! Why, you may ask? To take in the dawn chorus as the world would reawaken to a cacophony of bird song. Upon arriving, the most dominate voices were those of the whip-poor-wills. They were deafening. In fact, as former club president Martin Parker recalls, "It was so loud your head throbbed."

Once the whip-poor-wills quieted down, other species began to sing. They were always right on cue, each at its own designated time. First came the thrushes, followed in order by the sparrows, the buntings, the warblers, and then field birds like meadowlarks. You were buffeted by a continual wave of sound. The challenge was trying to pick out and identify the different voices competing for airtime.

Fast forward to 2019. When you walk outside at dawn, even in wilderness areas, the relative silence is eerie. Yes, birds are still singing, but the boisterous wall of sound is gone. Parker agrees. "I find the dawn chorus at my cottage getting quieter and quieter every year."

An alarming report

According to a study published this September in Science magazine, North America has lost nearly three billion birds over the last five decades. Take a moment to let that number sink in. Stated another way, about one-third of the total bird population we had in 1970 has disappeared.

The study looked at 50 years of data gathered by volunteers who carry out annual bird censuses like the Breeding Bird Survey, provincial and state breeding bird atlases, and the Christmas Bird Count. Scientists also looked at data from 143 weather radars, which pick up the millions of birds migrating in the spring and fall through the sky. The decline was there before their very eyes. Although the drop in bird populations has been known for a long time, the authors of the study were stunned by the scale of the loss.

This is not so much a story of extinction — although that may soon be the reality for some species — but rather the story of a "great thinning," in which once-abundant birds have declined to a fraction of their former numbers. It should serve as a stark warning. As Ken Rosenburg, the study's lead author said, "Birds are so interwoven with everything........

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