The birds and the bees

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North America’s birds are dying at a rate that’s alarming ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers report this week online in Science. The findings raise fears that some familiar species could go the way of the passenger pigeon, a species once so abundant that its extinction in the early 1900s seemed unthinkable.

In past decades, researchers have documented the decline of particular bird groups, including migratory songbirds. But more recent studies have been broader: covering 529 bird species, about three-quarters of all species in North America, and accounting for more than 90% of the entire bird population.

Skylark numbers have plummeted

Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. Nineteen common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground. Only waterfowl and raptors seem to be thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains.

Spix’s macaws extinct in the wild

Pesticides are very probably a factor. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds.

Where birds rely on insects for food, the decline in insect populations will have a profound impact on avifauna populations.  Earlier this year a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation documented plummeting insect numbers. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. Insect population collapses have been reported Germany and Puerto Rico, where one study revealed a 98% fall in ground insect over 35 years. The report’s authors didn’t mince words: The insect trend confirms that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting life forms on our planet.

Bees have been seriously affected. The number of honeybee colonies in the US was 6 million in 1947, but more than half have since been lost. The damage to bees is continuing: 500 million bees are estimated to have recently died in Brazil. The main cause of death : the use of pesticides containing products that are banned in Europe: neonicotinoids and fipronil.

The European Union imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids last April because of its deadly effect on bees. But in the same year Brazil actually lifted restrictions on pesticides – despite fierce opposition from environmentalists. The use of pesticides in Brazil has increased, according to Greenpeace, with almost 200 products containing chemicals banned in the EU registered in Brazil in the last three years.

Bolsonaro’s flagrant disregard for protecting natural habitats and biodiversity is only exceeded by Trump—whose wilful contempt for the environment is breath-taking.

The great thinning

Over in the UK, a report released last week confirmed the extent of a huge reduction in wildlife populations.  More than a quarter of mammals are facing extinction, according to a detailed and devastating report on the state of the natural world in the UK. Providing the clearest picture to date, the State of Nature report examined data from almost 7,000 species. One in seven species were threatened with extinction, and 41% of species studied have experienced decline since 1970. Over a quarter of mammal species were at risk of disappearing altogether. 

The pinemarten is almost extinct in the UK

It’s no better in Scotland, where the abundance and distribution of species has also declined. That country saw a 24% decline in average species abundance, and about one in 10 species threatened with extinction. A quarter of moths have been lost, and nearly one in five butterflies. Their numbers continue to plunge.

The State of Nature report also shows that almost one in five plants are classified as being at risk of extinction, along with 15% of fungi and lichens, 40% of vertebrates and 12% of invertebrates. It describes what conservationists call “the great thinning”, with 60% of “priority species” having declined since 1970. There has been a 13% decline in the average abundance of species studied. It’s death by a thousand cuts: one species at a time.

We are not powerless to prevent this destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity.  Strong government action by political parties committed to protecting the environment, safeguarding biodiversity, ring-fencing green belts and forests, shuttering coal, and phasing out oil and gas, can slow and eventually reverse this continual deterioration of the ecosystems that are essential for our survival and the welfare of our children. In countries where national elections are imminent, (Canada and the UK), and not far off (USA), voters should think very carefully. This is no time for busines as usual. The policies that  we need to support are clean energy, energy efficiency, and strong environmental protection. Setting a price on carbon is essential if greenhouse gas emissions are to be curbed and reduced. No-one should vote for a political party that is not strongly committed to these policies.  This advice particularly applies in Canada.

Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

3 thoughts on “The birds and the bees

  • 10/06/2019 at 3:20 pm
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    The one issue that seems fundamental to our dilemmas and rarely if ever addressed by the political parties or mainstream media is the issue of growth. We have all parties/politicians chasing the infinite growth chalice, and we have a media that neglects to even question this policy. Until and unless we confront this issue, I am convinced that we will continue to move ever closer to the cliff. ‘Clean’ and ‘efficient’ energy policies might slow the approach slightly, but so long as we rely upon directives and actions that encourage more people and an ever-larger economy we seem to be fubar…

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    • 10/07/2019 at 10:11 am
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      It’s true that continual economic growth is unsustainable. But before we get the point where an overcrowded planet leads to widespread famine and mortalilty, we will have to deal with the climate crisis. Let’s tackle one crisis at a time. It’s possible that dealing with the first truly international crisis that requires concerted global action (the climate crisis) might lead to a greater understanding that the planet is a global commons. The largest we have and the most important. There is only one way to manage common pool resources and that is by an agreement that each country only takes its fair share and that we manage the commons for all parties. Very few people seem to comprehend these limits. Yet countries in Scandanavia, where the degree of inequality is very low, are much better at living within their resource base and people are actually happier because they do not feel that they are missing out on what wealthier people have. The blatant extreme inequality in many countries fuels a constant drive for economic growth.

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      • 10/08/2019 at 11:43 am
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        I would contend that we have long ago overshot the natural carrying capacity of the planet and have only been able to continue relatively unscathed because of cheap fossil fuels (this is particularly so for so-called ‘advanced’ economies and a decreasing portion of the citizens in these economies). As these cheap fuel sources dwindle and the energy-return-on-energy-invested shrinks, we are witnessing a number of consequences, not least of which a world that increasingly depends upon pulling significant amounts of growth forward from the future through exponentially-expanding debt/credit–trillions and trillions of dollars; a sure sign of diminishing returns that is resulting in increased fragility of the various complex systems we all rely upon.
        The ‘solution’ you suggest is not only improbable, but increasingly unlikely as the various nation-states (especially their elites) fight over a shrinking pie. This is so for a number of complex reasons but one of the more fundamental ones is our global monetary system that is based upon credit-/debt-based currency that requires the pursuit of perpetual growth to pay off the debt/credit that is created. As I said above, we are currently trillions upon trillions of dollars in debt and that debt repayment requires growth to settle it and this is not something that can just be vanquished because we wish it were so.
        I maintain that until and unless we confront the pursuit of infinite growth and embrace degrowth strategies, we are fubar. And even this ‘solution’ would require, just as your solution would, a global, benevolent dictator/philosopher king to impose upon the world and its nations; a world that can’t seem to agree on anything…

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