For some years now, I have been on hikes with my family in various parts of the country and found myself wondering: Where are the birds?
It's happened in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, Acadia National Park in Maine, the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, and the southern Adirondacks. And because you're on just that one trail on just that one day during just those particular hours, you tend to think that it was just your bad luck. If only I'd come through at a different time. Or, alternately, you think you're overreacting to not hearing as many trills as you expected.
Perspective arrived a few days ago, with the stunning report that the bird population in the United States and Canada has declined some 29 percent since 1970, a loss of nearly 3 billion birds.
The declines, reported in a definitive study in the journal Science, were found in many species. Robins, sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, starlings, finches, swifts, meadowlarks, Baltimore orioles, shorebirds. The list goes on. Losses in the United States were particularly severe in the Great Plains.
The numbers are solid. Scientists used decades of on-the-ground data from annual bird counts, plus weather radar that also tracks "biomass" in the sky — i.e., the huge biannual migrations of migratory birds. The volume of spring migrations dropped 14 percent from 2007 to 2017 alone.
The enemy, as usual, is us.
Habitat loss is the biggest single cause of bird loss, scientists say. Industrial agriculture destroys wetlands and grasslands that birds love. Overdevelopment takes its toll. Cats, mostly but not entirely "unowned" cats, kill 2.6 billion birds in the Untied States each year. Hundreds of millions die annually in collisions with windows and cars.
Pesticides are a big, if less obvious, problem. A new study shows how pernicious neonicotinoids cause migrating sparrows to lose weight, which delays migration, which makes it harder to survive and reproduce. Neonics are great at killing insects that attack plants, as well as insects that do not. But when you remove the insects, you lose the birds that feed on them. And then you lose the predators that feed on birds, and then the predators' predators. That's a recipe for ecosystem collapse.
Consider what lost birds take with them. Some — like hummingbirds and sunbirds — are pollinators. Some eat insect pests, helping save trees and other plants. Others spread the seeds they eat through defecation, propagating plants and regenerating forests.
The good news is that for most of these species, this isn't an extinction problem. Yet. Thankfully, there's a lot we can do to ward that off. Some bird species point the way.
Waterfowl like ducks, geese and swans, and raptors like the bald eagle, are thriving or have made impressive comebacks thanks to wetland and endangered species protections, hunting regulations, and the 1972 ban on DDT. New laws are needed to toughen protections and make sure our water is clean. New York lawmakers will consider a ban on neonicotinoids next year. Passing a good bill would be wise. A federal ban would be wiser.
How about we manage our federal lands to protect our natural resources rather than exploit them? How about incentives to practice sustainable agriculture that preserves some trees and grasses?
As individuals, we can cut down on our own pesticide use, put decals or something similar on the outsides of windows, and, yes, keep our cats indoors.
Whether it's the majestic soaring of an eagle, the chatter of a mockingbird, or the antics of finches at your backyard feeder, birds are part of the backdrop and soundtrack of our lives. Let's work to keep them among us, instead of wondering where they went.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.