Juncos, red-winged blackbirds and many other Mountain West birds echo 'canaries in the coal mine'
It's an early morning at Roxborough State Park outside Denver, but the birds are wide awake. Chirps and calls echo off the tall rocks that are scattered around the park.
Bea Weaver leads a bird-watching group along a trail. She was trained as a Master Birder back in 2013, and she can spot birds by call and coat from far away.
"It's a challenge to, you know, know the sounds, to know the bird by sight, and that's fun," she said. "If they were all sitting on fences along here, I'm going, 'Well, it wouldn't be fun.' Just seeing the different birds in different places. They always surprise you."
Weaver lists the species on her phone as she hears them. On this walk, she saw 17 different species. That's about normal for this time of year, as it's nearing the end of their fall migration.
But she believes the counts have changed over the years.
"I think what I've noticed throughout the year [is we're] missing some species," Weaver said. "But also, the numbers are down."
Some of the other bird watchers on the hike – like Rosi Shoemaker – can sense it, too.
"I think the birds have been similar to last year, but we have noticed less of them, and we don't know why that is because we have the same kind of food and stuff," she said. "But the amount of birds has been different. Like we only saw one pair of bluebirds where we would see four or five."
Many birds are in trouble nationwide. In October, the U.S North American Bird Conservation Initiative published its report: State Of The Birds 2022. One of the main findings is that birds are declining in almost every single habitat–sometimes as much as 67% for some species–over the last 50 years.
Seventy species are at a "tipping point." That means they have already lost half or more of their breeding population since 1970 and could lose more in the next 50 years.
"They're on an escalator towards extinction for some of these populations," said Kyle Horton, an assistant professor at Colorado State University.
He contributed Mountain West data to a 2019 study published by Cornell. It found that bird populations have declined 30% since 1970–nearly three billion birds. That includes species like the Red-Winged Blackbird, which has lost 95 million birds, or the Dark-Eyed Juncos, which has lost 168 million.
Horton said climate and land changes are threats, forcing birds to find new places to live.
"Under climate change, those habitats are becoming few and far between," he said. "As it gets warmer, those birds keep going up and up in elevation, and eventually, there's no more mountain to keep climbing for those species."
In the Mountain West states alone, an average of 60 different species are at the highest risk of losing their habitat, according to data from the National Audubon Society.
"That's habitat that birds no longer can breed in, or a migratory bird can no longer stop over to replenish its energy stores to head north or south in spring or fall," Horton said.
Some habitat loss is caused by man-made issues, like construction or parking lots. Karl Brummert, Executive Director of the Denver Audubon, joined the group at Roxborough State Park for their hike. He said housing being built nearby could be a threat to migrating birds.
"It was all open ranchland," he said. "There were burrowing owls there. But they had to get rid of those to put in the houses."
That affects how birds migrate, too. Alison Holloran, Executive Director of the Audubon Rockies, said birds need to be well-rested and fed to make the long journey, just like when we travel. But when a habitat is altered, it's like removing restaurants or hotels from the land.
"That really draws their energy reserves down and it can kill them," she said. "It makes them either unable to make the journey or makes them much more prone to disease, to predators, and to just mistakes."
The large loss of birds is a sign to Holloran. She brought up the analogy of the canary in the coal mine. Miners used to drop birds down a shaft to see if the air was poisonous. The same is true for climate change today.
"The birds are telling us that this is going on and we need to act… start turning things around," she said. "If we take care of the birds, we not only take care of birds, we take care of ourselves and we take care of ecosystems that support many other wildlife species."
The National Audubon Society released its Bird Migration Explorer website in September. It looks like a map with a bunch of colored lines, but it actually shows the migratory pathways of 9,000 birds, thanks to research from many experts.
"The species migration maps bring those data to life and do not disappear on a static image," said Dr. Jill Deppe, the Senior Director of the Audubon Migratory Bird Initiative. "You're seeing birds move across the hemisphere… You can see how fast they're moving during migration, how many days it takes to migrate."
She noted that the website allows users to enter the name of a location and see all the places connected by migratory routes. There are lots of routes, as the tracker shows that three-quarters of the birds that breed in the United States and Canada are migratory.
Deppe said this highlights the importance of protecting habitats outside our own.
"We're connected to other places across the hemisphere by way of our migratory birds," she said. "It really does give us a sense of responsibility for taking care of those faraway places and also the places where we live."
That responsibility is more than just an environmental cry for help. Birds actually protect one of our favorite drinks in their migration. Deppe said a single bird eating insects can save a farmer 25 pounds of coffee per acre per year.
"Those birds fly to places like Colombia and eat insects that eat our coffee," she said. "So without that, the farmers who are producing the coffee in those other countries would have to put more chemicals on it, they'd have to do a lot more, invest a lot more."
Some government policies have been put in place to help protect migratory birds. Hugh Kingery founded the Denver Audubon many years ago and has since retired. He recalled how DDT was used after World War II to control insects, which decimated the bald eagle population in Colorado.
"The poster child of bird recovery is the bald eagle," Kingery said. "When they banned DDT, the bald eagle started to bounce back. And in Colorado, we had either… I'm not sure whether it was none or one nesting pair… And now we have 50 to 100 nesting pairs."
Other bird-related legislation has been introduced but is still being debated. The federal Bird Safe Buildings Act was introduced in the House back in 2021 to reduce the number of birds that die by crashing into buildings. The Recovering America's Wildlife Act was introduced in April of this year to resurrect species that have been listed as threatened or endangered.
Horton said these policies may only have limited power.
"It can be as simple as keeping cats indoors," he said. "[But] from a policy standpoint, there's not a lot of policies on things like that, or they're not regularly enforced, right? Maybe there is an ordinance to keep cats indoors, but it's challenging to enforce."
But anyone can make a change at the grassroots level, advocates say. Turning off lights, keeping cats indoors, and planting native plants are just a few suggestions listed on the National Audubon Society website. Under the "How To Help" tab, the group also suggests pushing for specific policies in Congress.
Horton said these policies and practices can make an impact if put into action.
"When we put our minds behind it, we put dollars behind it, we can see that these populations can come back and they can thrive," he said.
If put into place, these actions can help with even bigger goals, Holloran said.
"I don't care if you're staying in a parking lot or in your backyard if you take one moment just to stop, listen and look, you're going to see a bird," she said. "So they really are ubiquitous, and they really can help us better manage our actions, better address climate change, and help us heal this planet."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.