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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Human activity has decimated roughly 29% (almost 3 billion) of bird populations over the past 50 years in the U.S. and Canada, including meadowlarks, swallows and sparrows, scientists announced Thursday.

Why it matters: In addition to suffering pervasive losses in several groups of birds, North America has also reached a "widespread ecological crisis" that is affecting other activities like spring migration, food production and pest control, the scientists warn.

What's new: In a study published Thursday in Science, scientists found that "we're losing species of birds, abundances of birds, much faster than we thought ... almost three billion or one-third since 1970," co-author Peter Marra tells Axios.

  • The biggest driver is habitat loss caused by humans for agriculture and urbanization. This is something policymakers can still restore, for the most part, says Marra, former director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) and now director of the Georgetown Environmental Initiative (GEI).
  • Marra urges people to take action in "the voting booth" and "not stand for the repeal of things that protect our water and land."
  • People also need to remove threats to birds by reducing lawn areas that don't provide bird habitat, minimizing light pollution and avoiding the use of harmful pesticides. Outdoor cats have also played a significant role.

The bad news: The study, which uses a combination of standardized surveys by bird enthusiasts and data from radar, finds the abundance of birds has fallen in diverse areas since 1970.

  • 12 bird families — including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches — have 90% of the total accumulated loss.
  • Grassland birds have been hit the hardest, showing a 53% reduction (more than 720 million) in population.
  • Shorebirds, which often reside in sensitive coastal habitats, "were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population," the press release states.
  • Radar measures over the past decade show the volume of spring migration dropped 14% over that period.

The good news: The study also notes prior actions taken to protect certain species have worked, with waterfowl and raptors in particular becoming more abundant.

  • With wetland protections and hunting regulations, waterfowl like ducks, geese and swans have restored their populations, Marra says.
  • And due to endangered species protections and the removal of DDT-based pesticides, raptors like the bald eagle have become more plentiful.

What they're saying: "Studies like this do suggest the potential of a systems collapse,” Richard Gregory, a professor at University College London who wasn't part of this study, told the Washington Post. "These birds are an indicator of ecosystem health. And that, ultimately, may be linked to the productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems.”

The bottom line: Marra says it isn't too late to restore habitats and restore a healthy ecosystem in North America.

Of note: Sponsors of the study include American Bird Conservancy, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, GEI and SMBC.

Go deeper: Listen to Science's podcast on this topic and check out a new multimedia website describing the issue and advocating action, called 3BillionBirds.org.

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - World

Mexican President López Obrador tests positive for coronavirus

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday. Photo: Ismael Rosas/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced Sunday evening that he's tested positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: López Obrador tweeted that he has mild symptoms and is receiving medical treatment. "As always, I am optimistic," he added. "We will all move forward."

7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at FOX News' studios in New York City in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will announce Monday that she's running for governor of Arkansas.

The big picture: Sanders was touted as a contender after it was announced she was leaving the Trump administration in June 2019. Then-President Trump tweeted he hoped she would run for governor, adding "she would be fantastic." Sanders is "seen as leader in the polls" in the Republican state, notes the Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, who first reported the news.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.

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