Major Bird Decline

The Dark-eyed junco, a common bird in much of Idaho, is also one of the species that had faced a 50 percent decline in population size since 1966.

By now, the story of a major bird decline that appeared in Science Magazine this past fall and created quite a stir among biologists and the public, is old news. The study revealed that almost three billion birds, one fourth of the total birds in North America and a number that equals about 37 percent of today’s human population worldwide, have vanished over the past 50 years. This isn’t annual mortality; it is population shrinkage.

This study was a massive effort to compile all the bird census data for 529 breeding species from thirteen datasets. An additional new twist was the addition of weather radar technology that has been used to track large groups of migrating birds. This technology verified a fourteen percent decrease in nocturnal spring-migrating birds in the last ten years alone.

Since this study was published in a magazine instead of a scientific journal, space was severely limited. The authors claimed to have left out 90 percent of the information they hoped to convey that covered all the nuances, exceptions and confounding evidence that would have painted a more complete, albeit more complex, picture of the problem.

For instance, as much as fifteen percent of the decline might be attributed to invasive bird species such as European starlings, house sparrows (once called English sparrows for a reason) and rock pigeons. All three of these species have declined as much as 85 percent since 1966. Normally this news would be met with a cheer, as fewer of these exotic birds would generally be seen as a positive thing. Yet this was not addressed in the article.

Regardless of the nuances though, the message is still clear: there aren’t nearly as many birds as there used to be, and that is just looking at the past 50 years. There is no way to know what the rate of change has been since colonization (just the extinct passenger pigeon was estimated to have had a population between three and five billion birds).

Grassland habitats were hit hardest, with more than 700 million breeding individuals lost across 31 species since 1970. Keep in mind that the current human population of the entire US is about 340 million souls. I think we would notice if a similar decline happened to us.  

The study doesn’t look at causes but the authors were quick to point out that it isn’t one single problem. Yes, habitat loss is certainly a big issue, but there are others as well. Outside cats (they kill an estimated 2.6 billion birds annually), skyscrapers and window glass (accounting for one billion bird deaths annually), outdoor lighting, wind towers, disease, pesticides and the subsequent insect declines and climate change are all chipping away at the populations.

In some cases, the changes may be irreversible and the losses permanent. However, there are birds, especially waterfowl and raptors, that have dramatically increased over the 50 years, proving that with effort and will, problems such as habitat loss can be addressed, reversing declines.

And that is where this study was unique in one other way. Before the study was published, an entire media campaign was developed in order to actually take action and create a way for the public to engage to help reverse these declines. You can visit to find out what you can personally do to keep this old news fresh and of value.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho