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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

26 mins ago - World

Israeli and Palestinian officials are speaking again

Isaac Herzog (L), then the leader of the opposition, meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2015. Photo: Abbas MomaniI/AFP via Getty

Relations between the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have shifted substantially in recent weeks, with Israeli officials going so far as to call it “a renaissance."

Why it matters: During Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year tenure as prime minister, relations deteriorated to the point where there was almost no contact other than security coordination.

58 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan group reaches agreement on $1.2 trillion "hard" infrastructure bill

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

After weeks of long nights and endless Zoom calls, a bipartisan group of senators finally reached a deal on "the major issues" in their $1.2 trillion "hard" infrastructure package, GOP senators involved in the talks announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: It could be days before the group finishes writing the bill, but the Senate can begin debating the legislation in earnest now that they have resolved the outstanding issues. The bill needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate.

1 hour ago - Health

Pfizer raises estimate of COVID-19 vaccine sales by 29%

Pfizer anticipates manufacturing 4 billion doses of its vaccine next year. Photo: Chet Strange/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pfizer expects revenue from the COVID-19 vaccine, co-developed by BioNTech, will reach $33.5 billion this year — a 29% jump from the previously estimated $26 billion.

Why it matters: This vaccine, which has dramatically slowed the coronavirus pandemic, is on pace to be the world's top-selling drug of all time, by far. And now Pfizer is pushing for people to get a third "booster" shot of its vaccine to combat the growing Delta variant.

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