Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Eastern Meadowlark photo © Gary Kramer


Lost: 3 Billion Birds

In September 2019, the journal Science announced the loss of billions of birds over the past half-century in North America, and the news spread fast, reaching a new generation of concerned citizens. For conservationists, the information wasn’t new, but rather a painful reminder that we need to make conservation a priority.

What caught the public’s attention was the authors’ quantification of the decline — approximately 3 billion birds in 50 years, a staggering number. These declines are due to a multitude of threats and dangers, including collisions with windows and encounters with free-ranging house cats, but none more noteworthy than the conversion of habitat to human uses.

The longest, steepest decline can be found in our nation’s grassland birds, the result of a global decline in natural plant communities (bird habitats). Stated simply, humans have destroyed important habitats that birds and other critters call home.

In Val Lehmann’s 1941 monograph Attwater’s Prairie Chicken: Its Life History and Management, he observed that, by 1937, the original 6 million acres of prairie habitat in Texas and southwest Louisiana suitable for Attwater’s prairie-chickens had been drained, leveled and converted, leaving less than a half-million acres of suitable prairie habitat. The result? Prairie-chicken numbers dropped from 1 million to only 8,700 — half of which were in just two Texas counties.

Prairie habitats also support other grassland birds whose numbers have plummeted, like the northern bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, Henslow’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit and northern harrier. Prairies are also crucial for many types of waterfowl and numerous other plants and animals.

The most important way to shift the tide of bird loss is to restore native habitats. Protecting open space, utilizing thoughtful urban development, planting backyard native wildscapes, controlling invasive species and converting pastures back to native grasses are ways to accomplish this goal.

One new hope on the horizon is the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act. Passage would mean more than $50 million in new funds each year for Texas wildlife, transforming efforts to conserve and restore more than 1,300 species of concern in Texas, the majority of which are at-risk, nongame fish and wildlife.

Learn more about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect our wildlife at tpwd.texas.gov/about/recovering-americas-wildlife-act.

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