Bird Watching

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 high rocks scattered throughout the park.

Bea Weaver leads a birdwatching party along a trail. She was trained as a Master Birder in 2013, and she can spot birds by cry and pecking from afar.

“It’s a challenge to, you know, know the sounds, to know the bird by sight, and it’s fun,” she said. “If they were all sitting on fences along here, I’m going, ‘Well, that wouldn’t be fun.’ You just have to see the different birds in different places. They always surprise you.”

Weaver lists the species on her phone as she hears them. During this walk, she saw 17 different species. This is about normal for this time of year, as the end of their fall migration is approaching.

But she believes the numbers have changed over the years.

“I think what I’ve noticed throughout the year [is we’re] some species are missing,” Weaver said. “But also, the numbers are down.”

Some of the other birders on the hike – like Rosi Shoemaker – can also smell it.

Bea Weaver (left) and Karl Brummert (right) use their binoculars to look for birds at Roxborough State Park.

“I think the birds were similar to last year, but we noticed less of them, and we don’t know why it’s because we have the same type of food and things,” she said. declared. “But the number of birds has been different. Like we only saw one pair of bluebirds where we would see four or five.”

big drops

Many birds are in trouble across the country. In October, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative of the United States published its report: State Of The Birds 2022. One of the main conclusions is that birds are in decline in almost all habitats – sometimes up to 67% for some species – over the past 50 years. years.

Seventy species are at a “tipping point”. This means that they have already lost half or more of their breeding population since 1970 and could lose more over the next 50 years.

Trends at a Glance, State of Birds in the United States Report 2022, Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.jpeg

Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology


One of the key findings from The State of the Birds 2022 is that birds have been declining in almost all habitats – sometimes up to 67% for some species – over the past 50 years.

“They’re on an escalator to extinction for some of these populations,” said Kyle Horton, an assistant professor at Colorado State University.

He provided the Mountain West data to a 2019 study published by Cornell. He found that bird populations have declined by 30% since 1970, or nearly three billion birds. This includes species like the red-winged blackbird, which lost 95 million birds, or the dark-eyed junco, which lost 168 million.

Horton said climate and land changes are threats, forcing the birds to find new places to live.

“With climate change, these habitats are becoming increasingly rare,” he said. “As it gets warmer, these birds continue to climb in altitude, and eventually, there are no more mountains for these species to climb.”

In the Mountain West states alone, an average of 60 different species are at the highest risk of habitat loss, according to data from the National Audubon Society.

“It is a habitat in which birds can no longer breed, or a migrating bird can no longer stop to replenish its energy reserves to head north or south in spring or fall” , Horton said.

Some habitat loss is caused by human-caused issues, such as construction or parking lots. Karl Brummert, executive director of the Denver Audubon, joined the group at Roxborough State Park for their hike. He said nearby housing could pose a threat to migratory birds.

“It was a whole open ranch,” he said. “There were burrowing owls there. But they had to get rid of those to put them in the houses.”

It also affects how birds migrate. Alison Holloran, executive director of the Audubon Rockies, said the 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.

“It really reduces their energy reserves and it can kill them,” she said. “It either makes them unable to make the journey or makes them much more prone to disease, predators and error.”

The great loss of birds is a sign for Holloran. She brought up the analogy of the canary in the coal mine. Miners used to drop birds into a pit to see if the air was poisonous. The same is true for climate change today.

“The birds are telling us this is happening and we need to take action…start making a difference,” she said. “If we take care of the birds, we are not only taking care of the birds, we are taking care of ourselves and we are taking care of the ecosystems that are home to many other wildlife species.”

Hemispherical impact

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 routes of 9,000 birds, thanks to the research of many experts.

“Species migration maps bring this data to life and don’t disappear into a static image,” said Dr. Jill Deppe, senior director of the Audubon Migratory Bird Initiative. “You see birds moving across the hemisphere… You can see how fast they move during migration, how many days it takes to migrate.”

She noted that the website allows users to enter the name of a place and see all places connected by migration routes. There are many routes, as the tracker shows that three-quarters of the birds that breed in the United States and Canada are migratory.

National Audubon Society Bird Migration Tool

National Audubon Society


A screenshot from the National Audubon Society’s Bird Migration Explorer website.

Deppe said this highlights the importance of protecting habitats outside of our own.

“We are connected to other places in the hemisphere through our migratory birds,” she said. “It really gives us a sense of responsibility to take care of these faraway places and also the places where we live.”

This responsibility is more than just an environmental call for help. Birds actually protect one of our favorite drinks during migration. Deppe said just one bird-eating insect can save a farmer 25 pounds of coffee per acre per year.

“These birds fly to places like Colombia and eat insects that eat our coffee,” she said. “So without that, farmers who produce coffee in those other countries would have to put more chemicals on it, they would have to do a lot more, invest a lot more.”

To take part

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 for insect control, which decimated the bald eagle population in Colorado.

“The iconic child of bird recovery is the bald eagle,” Kingery said. “When they banned DDT, the bald eagle started bouncing. And in Colorado we had either…I don’t know if it was none or a breeding pair…And now we have 50 to 100 breeding pairs.”

Other legislation relating to birds has been introduced but is still subject to debate. The federal Building Bird Safety Act was introduced in the House in 2021 to reduce the number of birds that die from crashing into buildings. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act was introduced in April this year to resurrect species that have been listed as threatened or endangered.

Horton said these policies may have only limited power.

“It can be as simple as keeping cats indoors,” he said. “[But] politically, there aren’t many policies on things like that, or they aren’t consistently enforced, are there? There may be an order to keep cats indoors, but it’s hard to enforce.”

But anyone can bring about change at the grassroots level, supporters say. Turning off lights, keeping cats indoors, and planting native plants are just a few suggestions listed on the National Audubon Society’s website. Under the “How to help” tab, the group also suggests lobbying for specific policies in Congress.

Horton said these policies and practices can have an impact if implemented.

“When we put our minds behind it, we put dollars into it, we can see that these people can come back and they can thrive,” he said.

If put in place, these actions can help achieve even bigger goals, Holloran said.

“I don’t care if you’re standing in a parking lot or in your backyard if you take a moment to stop and listen and look, you’re going to see a bird,” she said. “So they’re really ubiquitous, and they can really help us manage our actions better, fight climate change better, and 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 throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.