NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Local bird experts say the numbers are startling. There’s been a dramatic decline in bird populations nationwide and the problem as well as the causes are especially serious in Louisiana.
The banks of Bayou St. John are a great place for bird watching but bird numbers here are far less than what once was as documented by Naturalist John James Audubon who witnessed a massive golden plover hunt in 1831.
“He counted the birds on front of him and extrapolated across hunters and he estimated 144,000 had been shot in one day,” says University of Holy Cross Biologist Peter Yaukey. “Statewide in any one year, it never gets out of the hundreds anymore.”
Some observers also say swarms of purple martins along the Causeway are not as common as they were just five years ago when the study was commissioned documenting thousands.
“I got then to 120,000.”
In fact, a recent study by the American Bird Conservancy found that American has lost nearly one-third of its bird population over the last 50 years. That’s nearly three billion fewer birds.
“Common birds are disappearing and disappearing at a rate that we didn’t realize,” says Michael Parr with the American Bird Conservancy.
Bird experts say the problems are multi-layered and all caused by human interference, whether it’s urban lights, pesticides or massive loss of habitat.
“Cutting down of forests, draining wetlands, shorebirds are one of the big losers,” says Yaukey.
Habitat loss is huge in Louisiana where state officials estimate we have lost 95 percent of our coastal forest due to sea level rise, subsidence and violent storms.
“Every birder of a certain age can remember in the 70s when the migratory birds movement was significantly larger and we pine for those days.”
Human development and habitat loss will likely remain with us but ornithologists like Yaukey say it’s important to hold on to lands like Fontainebleau State Park which he believes should remain permanently dedicated to greenspace.
“Why take one of those places that people can get that experience and turn it into something else? There are plenty of other places to put conference centers.”
A New Hampshire congresswoman has co-sponsored the “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” which calls for a billion dollars in federal funding to aid wildlife recovery efforts and conserve habitats.
“It’s much easier to protect and save a species that’s threatened than a species that’s fully endangered,” says Congresswoman Annie Kuster.
There are success stories. Brown pelicans and bald eagles have made impressive comebacks.
“Now that pesticides have been eliminated, we’ve gone from six nests statewide to over 400 now and six urban nests in New Orleans,” says Yaukey.
Here in Louisiana, nearly $148 million in BP money is being spent to restore coastal habitat. And while the task seems large, experts say there are things we can all do to try and restore bird populations.
“There are ways to make your own house more bird friendly, not just feeders, but make it relatively natural using native plant species, having an understory, having as many trees as possible,” says Yaukey.
But the bigger issues of urban sprawl, habitat loss and pesticides will remain with us making a bird comeback a major challenge.
City lights are considered a big part of the bird loss problem. They disrupt birds’ vision of stars which they use to guide their migrations.