No wonder they’re angry: 13.7 million birds are dying every day in the U.S.

At the beginning of this month when about 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in one night in Arkansas, biologists were called on to put a damper on public speculation about pesticides and secret military tests by reminding everyone how many birds there are and how many die. They often do so as a result of human activity, but in far more mundane and dispiriting ways than conspiracy buffs might imagine.

Five billion birds die in the U.S. every year,” said Melanie Driscoll, a biologist and director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway for the National Audubon Society.

That’s from “Conspiracies Don’t Kill Birds. People, However, Do,” a NY Times story on the hot eco-topic du jour.  The five billion number may seem high, but Birds Etcetera did a literature review in 20o2 that seems consistent with it.  A 1997 Biodiversity and Conservation study, “How many birds are there?” found “different methods yield surprisingly consistent estimates of a global bird population of between 200 billion and 400 billion individuals.”

Here’s more of the NYT story:

That means that on average, 13.7 million birds die in this country every day. This number, while large, needs to be put into context. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that a minimum of 10 billion birds breed in the United States every year and that as many as 20 billion may be in the country during the fall migratory season.

Even without humans, tens of millions of birds would be lost each year to natural predators and natural accidents “” millions of fledglings die during their first attempts at flight. But according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, people have severely complicated the task of survival. Although mortality rates are difficult to calculate for certain, using modeling and other methods like extrapolation from local research findings, the government has come up with estimates of how many birds die from various causes in the United States.

Some of the biggest death traps are surprising. Almost everyone has an experience with a pet proudly bringing home a songbird in its jaws. Nationally, domestic and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, according to the government. One study done in Wisconsin found that domestic rural cats alone (thus excluding a large number of suburban and urban cats) killed roughly 39 million birds a year.

Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly, but an unknown and probably larger number ingest the poisons and die later unseen. Orphaned chicks also go uncounted.

And then there is flying into objects, which is most likely what killed the birds in Arkansas. The government estimates that strikes against building windows alone account for anywhere from 97 million to nearly 976 million bird deaths a year. Cars kill another 60 million or so. High-tension transmission and power distribution lines are also deadly obstacles. Extrapolating from European studies, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 174 million birds die each year by flying into these wires. None of these numbers take into account the largest killer of birds in America: loss of habitat to development.

All of this explains why about a quarter of the 836 species of birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are in serious decline. For a third of the other birds there is not enough information to be sure about the health of their populations.

Of course, poisons and electric wires are not as exciting to think about as secret government plots, but Ms. Driscoll says it is time we pay attention to them anyway.

“It is the story that the press and the public have largely missed, and it is important, and timely, given the current concern,” she said. “And it is what gets those of us who work in bird conservation motivated every day to try to deal with human-induced changes to our habitats, our landscape and our very climate.”

Treehugger has some good commentary on the I story:

Ultimately, the public’s fascination with the die-offs is rooted in the concern that all may not be right between man and nature — and that perhaps finally the scales have been tipped irrevocably, meaning we may be next. But as the stories fade from the headlines, perhaps we’ll be too enraptured in the next news cycle to even breathe a sigh of relief that the problem has ‘passed’, so we’ll carry on.

There is indeed something troubling about those mass deaths, but whether or not human activities are responsible for a few thousand bird corpses here and there isn’t really the point. 13.7 million wild birds died today in the United States and it’s unmentioned because there’s little doubt that we have something to do with most them.

(Oh, and that’s not including the 25.6 millions of chickens and turkeys slaughtered in US factory farms today, either — but there’s no mystery about who’s responsible for that.)

Whatever the cause of the individual die offs, we ain’t seen nothing yet.  Humans are in the process of making the planet very inhospitable to most species and the entire food chain:

22 Responses to No wonder they’re angry: 13.7 million birds are dying every day in the U.S.

  1. Tyler says:

    I notice the lack of mention of wind turbines in this discussion, showing how little they contribute to bird deaths in the overall picture.

  2. John McCormick says:

    In may part of Northern VA, we have no shortage of crows and blackbirds. And, they seem to be increasing in number. Song birds are very few and I wonder if the competition is too great for them. Sad to see them leaving.

    John McCormick

  3. Mike says:

    How many birds survive or produce more eggs because people feed them?

    [JR: 325,467.]

  4. Prokaryotes says:

    Colorful Birds Feel Chernobyl Damage More
    Antioxidants make for brightly colored plumage in some bird species. But it appears around Chernobyl that duller birds are at an advantage, because they can use the antioxidants to detox.

    Chernobyl species decline linked to DNA
    With every generation of a species’ lineage, the pattern of its DNA changes ever so slightly, as a result of the natural balance between mutations and the individual’s ability to repair damaged DNA. This is how species evolve.

    The rate of this change – as each piece of the DNA code is replaced by another – is called the substitution rate.

    “This information is available in large database,” Professor Mousseau explained to BBC News. “So you can get the DNA sequences [of each species] and examine the changes that have occurred among a species over time.

    Migrating birds have been particularly badly affected by the contamination
    “What we have discovered is that when we look at the species in Chernobyl, we can predict, based on their substitution rates, which ones are most vulnerable to contaminants.”

    Brightly coloured birds and birds that have a long distance migration were some of the organisms most likely to be affected by contaminants. “One explanation may be that these species have, for whatever reason, less capable DNA repair mechanisms,” said Professor Mousseau.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    It appears that the evidence of this huge event has not yet been uncovered. Thermal and chemical markers are not easily detected in this situation. Please keep us posted if scientists discover the likely cause.

  6. Wit's End says:

    The USGS maintains a map and list of reported die-offs. A significant number of the birds are described as “emaciated.” There isn’t enough food for them anymore, because the trees, shrubs and other vegetation at the base of the food chain are dying back. Aside from direct starvation, malnourished wildlife is more vulnerable to other stresses such as weather and disease.

    Plantlife is dying because there is an unprecedented (in all history) background amount of toxic ozone in the tropospheric atmosphere.

    So yeah, it’s us.

  7. Leif says:

    So with dead oceans I suppose that means all the sea birds will take a hit as well. I doubt that evolution will be fast enough to allow the Albatross and gulls to change their diet to jelly fish in that short time.

    “Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century””

    What is that story about the web of life that I hear?

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    “A 2004 California Energy Commission study found that the Altamont Pass turbines killed between 1,800 and 4,700 birds annually. Those fatalities included as many as 1,300 raptors such as hawks, falcons, owls and federally protected golden eagles.”

    Altamont has the reputation of being The bird killing wind farm. (Somewhat deserved in its earliest days due to poor tower design and lower, faster spinning turbines.)

    Altamont as 5,700 turbines making the kill count < 1 bird per turbine per year.

    The 2,400 most problematic (30 year old) turbines are being replaced with slower revolving blades on higher towers.

  9. dhogaza says:

    One big problem with Altamont was that the early turbines were mounted on derrick-like structures, which buteos and eagles found attractive as perches for hunting (red-tails, in particular, perch-hunt very frequently).


    I notice the lack of mention of wind turbines in this discussion, showing how little they contribute to bird deaths in the overall picture.

    The reason why wind turbines are a focus isn’t because of the overall number of birds they kill, but rather that *poorly sited and engineered* wind turbines kill species which exist in lower numbers and which are already species of concern or listed. Such as golden eagles, prairie chicken, sage grouse, etc …

    If wind turbines were to selectively kill every starling and house sparrow in the country, it’s likely that no ornithologist or population ecologist would shed a tear…

  10. dhogaza says:

    Wit’s End:

    The USGS maintains a map and list of reported die-offs. A significant number of the birds are described as “emaciated.” There isn’t enough food for them anymore, because the trees, shrubs and other vegetation at the base of the food chain are dying back. Aside from direct starvation, malnourished wildlife is more vulnerable to other stresses such as weather and disease.

    There are plenty of natural causes, one needn’t invoke human impacts for every problem wildlife faces. Heavy snow in spring, or unseasonably wet and cold weather in summer, unusually bad weather during fall migration, and many other weather events can directly impact migrating species of the food they live on.

    Yes, many birds die due to human alterations to the landscape. Probably our biggest impact on native species has been the introduction (both accidental and, like the starling, intentional) of species from other parts of the world that have become huge pests. This is also true of aquatic animal and plant communities, and terrestrial animal and plant communities beyond birds.

  11. Tom Lenz says:

    Wit’s End, you are most definately onto something. Having lived here in rural Arkansas for 26 years in close contact with the trees, I can say without a doubt that the general health of this forest is in decline. The sycamores especially seem to be struggling, the younger and middle aged ones in particular, at least here on our farm. I’m not a scientist but I see once healthy trees dying all around me. We’re also seeing what seems to be ozone damage on the needles of some young white pine we planted several years ago.
    Do we really have 20-30 more years before ‘it’ enters the fan?

  12. J Bowers says:

    Re. 6 Wits End

    Heres a Google Map of mass animal deaths (couldn’t find the USGS one).

  13. Wit's End says:

    Exactly, Leif. Here’s a very lucid explanation of the acidification in the ocean dissolving corals and shells

    which is a parallel of the problem of our caustic atmosphere doing essentially the same thing to plants and trees on the land.

    and here’s the link to the USGS map, which leads to the list of causes of deaths:

  14. Wit's End says:

    Tom Lenz, the sycamores have anthracnose, a fungus that causes them to drop their leaves mid-season and spend more energy replacing them with smaller versions. It’s important to understand though that scientific experiments have demonstrated that trees exposed to ozone are attacked by fungus, disease and insects more ferociously, as though they have AIDS.

    And the pines are turning yellow and dropping needles. You used to not be able to see through them to the other side, and now they are all transparent.

    Frankly I very much doubt it will be anything like 20 – 30 years before “it” hits the fan because, although forests have been in decline for decades, the past three years have seen them dying at a rapidly accelerating rate. It’s the trend that matters – and it indicates a tree dieoff hockey stick. And I’ve personally seen a drastic and dramatic downturn in trees health from Massachusetts to Seattle San Francisco, Costa Rica, Washington DC and Virginia, as well as at my home in New Jersey.

    It’s a very widespread phenomena, pointing to an atmospheric cause. Also, NASA and the Dept. of Ag. estimate crop yield loss from ozone in the billions of dollars annually, just in the US. Some of the reduction in crop production is due to extreme weather – but about 20% of it is air pollution. And it’s just getting worse.

  15. Tom Lenz says:

    Wit’s End, you’re website is great, thanks for all the links.
    The looming and inevitable food crisis is already upon us I fear. The stage is set anyway.

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    (both accidental and, like the starling, intentional) of species from other parts of the world that have become huge pests.

    A little factoid about the starlings . At the end of the 19th century a group of Victorians decided that it would be a good idea to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into Central Park.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Colorado Bob#16, we had similar introduction agencies in Australia that burdened us with pests like foxes and hares. The damage they have wrought is immense. In the fullness of time a balance will be restored after we are gone, or, less likely, learned a few lessons about sufficiency of action and ambition. I live a little out of town, semi-rural, and the good rains this winter, after quite a few dry years, have led to an outburst of insect life. Butterflies are abundant, and birds by the score. Nature is very resilient-if we changed our ways we’d be OK in a century or two. In the UK, I saw it reported, they’ve ‘lost’ (to greed and the Market God) 97% of their meadows since 1950. Consequently their insects are disappearing with repercussions up the food chain. Yet where meadows are reintroduced, the insects reappear, almost by magic.

  18. Vic says:

    I’m a human and I’m angry at USA.
    Why did USA choose not to ratify the recent, global Convention on Biological Diversity ?
    193 out of 196 countries ratified the protocol, which basically aims to create more marine and terrestrial wildlife sancturies.
    USA is beginning to look like the enemy of the world.

  19. Michael Hauber says:

    Five billion birds die every year? So how many are born? 5.1 billion? Or 4.9 billion?

    What would the world be like if 5 billion birds were born every year and none of them died?

  20. Vic says:

    On the south west coast of Australia last year, over 150 birds of different species fell to their death onto a local golf course.

    Not hard to understand when you realise that temperatures recorded in the region that day were up to 53 degrees celcius (127 degrees farenheit) smashing all previous local records.
    When Australia’s native birds are dying from heat exhaustion, you know there’s something wrong.

  21. Mike says:

    How many birds survive or produce more eggs because people feed them?

    [JR: 325,467.]

    Hmmm? I thought I read somewhere it was 432,006. ;)

  22. forestecocide says: environment/ 2011/ jan/ 20/ uk-wild-bird-numbers
    “Populations of wild birds in the UK are falling dramatically with even slight recent recoveries apparently stalled, government figures showed today.
    Only seabird populations remain comfortably above 1970 levels, while farmland bird numbers continue to plunge from a brief mid-1970s peak to half those of 40 years ago.
    Habitat changes responsible for fewer nesting sites and food shortages [did you get that? FOOD SHORTAGES} were blamed last summer for sharp English farmbird losses but the reasons for the decline in woodland birds are less clear, according to the RSPB.”
    Hey, I guess JR and Mike are going to be chortling about the 325,467 vs. 432,006 birds saved from starvation by people filling bird feeders…all the way home from the empty grocery store where they went to get some food to feed their starving children.
    Hahahaha. Food shortages. Hahahaha.