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Birds in steep decline in North Dakota, elsewhere

Bird numbers crashing

The melodious song of the state bird, once common across all of North Dakota, is seldom heard. The Western meadowlark is one of many species of songbirds whose numbers are in steep decline.

Wooden fenceposts, a favorite resting place for meadowlarks to deliver one of the most delightful and unique sounds in nature, have seen fewer and fewer visits from the colorful songster for the past several years.

“It’s really upsetting that meadowlarks are gone. So too are many birds really unique to our prairie, but most of our prairie is gone,” said Sherry Leslie, Minot, a long-time bird watcher.

She’s not alone in lamenting the very noticeable decline in bird numbers, including the Western meadowlark. Frank Durbian, Souris River Refuge Complex manager, shares Leslie’s concerns.

“It’s a scary thing. I’ve noticed it over the course of my life too,” said Durbian.

Meadowlarks are not completely gone, but there’s no arguing their numbers have gone drastically downhill for several years. The morning melodies they produce, a once common sound for anyone spending time outdoors, is now a fading memory. Many North Dakotans today have never heard a meadowlark.

“Hopefully we’re not devoid of the call of the meadowlark. I hope not, said Durbian. “I hope our grandkids will be able to hear that too.”

“I hear people say they miss the meadowlark. It’s a sound you don’t hear anymore,” said Leslie.

Ron Martin, Minot, widely recognized as a top birder in the region, has participated in countless bird surveys for many years and has spent thousands of hours observing all species of birds. Like others, he has witnessed a dramatic decline in bird numbers.

“Honestly, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse. I’m not optimistic,” said Martin. “Meadowlarks have declined a lot. They really have. The breeding bird survey bears that out.”

It’s not just meadowlarks and not just in North Dakota. Nationally, estimates are that bird numbers have declined in North America by 25% since 1970. Perhaps by as many as 3 billion birds.

“I once thought nothing could happen to horned larks,” said Martin. “Even they have declined. That’s amazing. It’s not just here. The numbers that people catch at banding stations over the years have declined. It’s pretty obvious there’s a lot fewer birds than there used to be.”

Bird watchers from all over the continent used to have North Dakota on their bucket list, hoping to check off unique grassland birds from their lists. For the past several years birds like the Baird’s sparrow and Sprague’s pipit have become all but impossible to find.

“Numbers don’t lie,” said Martin, referring to bird survey data. “Some birds are declining pretty precipitously, particularly the grassland birds. North Dakota’s landscape is much different than it used to be, very fragmented.”

Where prairie grassland can be found, certain species of grassland birds can be found too. However, even where the habitat is better suited for certain birds, their numbers are less than what could be expected a few short years ago. Birders accustomed to identifying birds by the sound of their calls are often disappointed.

“It’s dead silence,” remarked Leslie.

The J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Upham boasts a variety of habitat suitable for waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland species. It has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area and is a regional site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. It is becoming a sort of oasis for birds and birdwatchers.

“We have large blocks of grasslands and wetlands for virtually all life stages of birds,” explained Durbian. “We help combat that general trend of declining bird species on the Northern Great Plains. We recognize the decline in grassland birds as a most important priority and focal area for this region, for sure.”

While numbers of tree swallows, finches, chickadees, siskins and juncos are among the songbirds in decline, so too are insects. One of the reasons why, say many, is the use of pesticides.

“There’s a decline in the number of insects all over the world,” said Martin. “Less insects means less birds. That’s pretty fundamental science.”

“We love nature and the outdoors,” added Leslie. “When you look at the whole total picture of it you realize it’s drastic and we’re very upset about it.”

The American Bird Conservancy says birds signal a broader crises in the natural world, citing declining amphibian numbers and loss of other wildlife species. Loss of habitat and fragmented habitat, says the ABC, is the biggest driver of bird declines. Grassland birds, those found throughout North Dakota, have been the hardest hit with an estimated reduction of 53% since 1970, a figure the ABC places at more than 720 million birds.

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