What Birds Teach Us: Don't Take Them -- or the Future -- for Granted

Why should you care about that bird pecking in your front yard or about the Rufous Hummingbird or the meadowlark? Because thriving birds = thriving ecosystems.
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The bird you heard singing or saw overhead today? It's pretty easy to take it for granted, but in fact, it might have traveled thousands of miles to get to your house.

It might have been to places where you'd need a passport and vaccinations to visit. Those ducks that show up every winter in your local park? It's likely they were hatched in the Arctic tundra. When you stop to think about it, birds are the last connection to the wild for many of us. And the arrival and departure of birds -- particularly during their heroic migrations -- is a link to nature's rhythms.

But that bond can be broken. We are seeing fewer and fewer migratory birds, even many so-called common species. That's because they depend on a chain of food and rest stops, whether they travel up the Mississippi River or along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Break enough links in the chain, and birds die -- or are never born.

The Eastern Meadowlark's four-note call (it sounds like we'ee SEE you) is a classic spring birdsong. Like a super-hero's costume, the meadowlark has a brilliant yellow breast emblazoned with a black V.

But the meadowlark is no super-hero. In fact, it is in mortal danger. Four decades ago, there were an estimated 24 million Eastern Meadowlarks in the wild. Today that number has fallen to fewer than 7 million.

The meadowlark is an indirect victim of American dependence on foreign oil. As oil prices have skyrocketed, farmers have switched over their fields to grow corn for ethanol. Cornfields make poor meadowlark habitats. The chain is broken.

On the West Coast, the Rufous Hummingbird faces similar threats. The Rufous is a tiny, almost all cinnamon-colored bird (males have a red throat), found wherever flowers are near, from dense forests to sunny gardens in southern Alaska to northern California. Tiny and mighty, Rufous Hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles down the West Coast, to spend the winter in Mexico.

The Rufous Hummingbird breeds in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest, where logging and urban sprawl have degraded its habitat. Current estimates suggest its numbers are crashing: having fallen by nearly 60 percent over the past four decades.

In all, my colleagues at National Audubon Society have identified more than 20 birds, once common, whose numbers have plummeted since the mid-1960s. They are victims of a growing list of threats, including disruption in our climate, conversion of pastures and meadows to farmland, urban sprawl, pollution, logging, and other human causes. (Here's a link to that list.)

Why should you care about that bird pecking in your front yard or about the Rufous or the meadowlark? Because thriving birds = thriving ecosystems. And thriving ecosystems = clean air, clean water, abundant food and great habitat. And those are places where people thrive, too. This isn't just about doing what's best for birds; it's about doing what's best for our kids and the generations to follow.

David Yarnold is President & CEO of Audubon.

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