Chipping sparrow

The chipping sparrow is among the species of birds whose populations have declined locally.

If you sense that you’re hearing fewer birds singing when you wake up in the morning, it’s not your mind or your ears playing tricks on you.

A report published this week in the journal Science estimated that the North American bird population plummeted by a staggering 29 percent since 1970. That means there are close to 3 billion fewer birds fluttering and soaring in the skies than there were a half-century ago.

The decline in the number of birds in the United States and Canada has been reflected in Pennsylvania, according to Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

“This is for real,” Mulvihill said.

Among the species of birds that have seen declines locally and across the commonwealth are chipping sparrows, the common grackle and the red-eyed vireo, he explained. Mulvihill was among the experts who tracked bird populations in the commonwealth between the late 1980s and the end of the 2000s, and there is “a remarkably high degree of concordance” between the observations of his study and the findings of this new, more wide-ranging analysis.

The Science study looked at 500 different types of birds and uncovered declines across the board. While the loss of birds is a blow to bird-watchers and animals that feast on birds like cats and serpents, it’s also a gut-punch to our ecosystem. It’s birds that control pests, pollinate flowers and carry out other vital tasks necessary to keeping the environment healthy.

Paul Carson, a Washington County resident and retired publications editor at the Ruffed Grouse Society, which dedicates itself to the bird that can commonly be found in the Appalachian Mountains, concurs that there’s been a dip in the bird population in this area. He pointed out that he hasn’t seen a ruffed grouse around his home in the last three years or so.

“Their habitat is being chopped up,” Carson said.

According to the study, blackbirds, starlings and warblers, all common species, suffered grievous losses. For example, there are now 400 million fewer blackbirds in North America in the five decades since the Beatles tipped their hat to them in the 1968 song “Blackbird.”

The Science report doesn’t pinpoint specific culprits, but experts believe they include the use of pesticides, habitat loss and even such prosaic activities as birds striking windows or being gobbled up by outdoor cats.

“People have a natural desire to react to something like this in some positive way,” Mulvihill said. “Your backyard is part of a larger puzzle for breeding and migratory birds. On the ground, there are changes everyone can make to our lifestyles that can benefit birds.”

He continued, “The point is, you can’t take birds for granted in our world. We know that bird populations that numbered in the billions went down to zero in our lifetime.”

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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