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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Common bird species in decline, study finds

We’ve heard about the canary in the coal mine.

But what about the meadowlark in the meadow, the pintail in the marsh or the grosbeak in the pine forest?

Like the canary keeling over when the air in the mine goes sour, scientists say attention ought to be paid now to a nose dive in bird populations.

“It’s definitely an indicator for the health of people and communities,” said Nina Carter, executive director of Audubon Washington.

Some of the most common bird species are now becoming rare, according to a report issued last week by the Audubon Society. The national study is based on the society’s extensive Christmas bird counts and breeding bird censuses.

Scientists have long been raising red flags over the sorry state of birds such as eagles, spotted owls and California condors.

But this new report focuses on the sharp declines of species that were once common at backyard bird feeders and those that formed the soundtrack to spring days – Western meadowlarks, for example, have dropped by 60 percent over the past 40 years in Eastern Washington, according to the Audubon Society.

“We have focused our attention on endangered species and failed to notice serious declines in populations of our common birds,” said Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington and noted bird expert.

Results of the study aren’t exactly a surprise to birders, who have noticed certain species seemingly vanish from the Inland Northwest landscape. Spokane Audubon member Jim Acton used to regularly spot yellow-breasted chats in Indian Canyon’s brushy haunts.

“The birds have abandoned the region,” said Acton, who has been observing birds in the region for a half century.

The same thing is true for the veery, a member of the thrush family. Acton also used to find loggerhead shrikes fluttering above the sagebrush terrain west of Davenport.

“We don’t see them out there anymore,” he said. Nationwide, shrikes have declined by 70 percent because of habitat loss, according to the Audubon study.

The once-common bird species highlighted by the report are becoming rare because they no longer have enough places to nest and find food. Apart from habitat loss because of urban sprawl and intensive farming practices, also to blame is increased competition from exotic species, such as starlings and house sparrows, according to the report.

“The biggest problem comes from cutting up our landscape into smaller and smaller disconnected pieces,” said Carter, who directs Audubon’s Washington chapter.

Earlier this month, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also issued a warning that dirty bird feeders are spreading diseases and killing birds.

A recent outbreak of salmonella bacteria is believed to be killing scores of songbirds across the region, according to the agency. Daily cleaning with one part bleach and 10 parts water can help prevent the problem.

The bigger concerns of habitat loss and crowding by exotic species won’t be solved so easily.

But Carter said steps can be taken to help birds. Homeowners can help by filling their yards with native shrubs and trees. Farmers can help by leaving bands of brush and habitat between fields.

“Those little strips of habitat are really critical for birds,” Carter said.

The birds will need all the help they can get in coming years, Carter said. Global warming and America’s growing thirst for corn-based ethanol could push some species over the edge, she said.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Arctic, which serves as breeding grounds for many birds, according to the report. Rising sea levels could also swamp shorebird habitat.

The push for ethanol is prompting farmers to transform grasslands and pastures into row crops, which offer little food or shelter for birds, Carter said.