Ask-a-Birder: Low Bird Numbers?

Northern Mockingbird, courtesy of Mary Nell Dexter.

Has it seemed like you are seeing fewer of your favorite birds this year? We received a question from Wild Birds Unlimited Store Manager, Wes Renick, which may resonate with you:

We’ve been hearing a lot from birders and backyard hobbyists alike that there seems to be a dramatic reduction in the bird population this season. I don’t want to misinform anyone based on anecdotal testimony, though, so I was hoping you might have some insight into whether we’re actually experiencing a notable decline this year. Any references to how I could research this independently would also be a great help.

The answer from our Ask-a-Birder expert, Noreen Baker, should help shed some light on this:

I would love to say that what you are hearing with regard to reductions in bird populations does not have any merit, but unfortunately declining bird populations are very much real and have, in my opinion, reached a tipping point such that the lack of birds has become readily apparent and left many wondering the same thing – “Where Have All the Birds Gone?” I don’t think it is any one thing specific to this season, but a culmination of many factors long in the making:

1) Bird numbers have been declining for many years. A study published in September 2019, which you may have heard about, documents a loss of 3 billion birds since 1970, and these losses continue. You can read the article and additional details here.

2) More specific to Texas, data from the 2021 Christmas Bird Counts have just been released which also add insight to the population declines. The following is a direct quote from the Texas summary document for the 122nd CBC:

  “Texas CBCs this season [2021] had the highest rate of declining species out of the last 14 years and have had five years in a row where declining species out-numbered increasing species. Ninety-one species (24%) were at their lowest level for the decade. The main cause of these declines for 34% of the species is not known at this time. It is known that winter storm URI did kill birds over a large area and drought over the Central Flyway reduced reproduction of some species.”

I highlighted winter storm URI because it had a widespread impact on many birds including common birds that we are used to seeing in good numbers but which crashed after the storm. Birds such as Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and Bewick’s Wrens were severely impacted.

3) A couple of other reasons that may contribute to the appearance of less birds that are not quite as dire include above average temperatures and ample food in the north that allow some species to remain farther north and not migrate south in normal numbers. It is also common for birds to take advantage of natural food sources after good fall rains that will cause them to temporarily abandon feeders, but they will likely return and appear more numerous again as winter takes hold and natural resources diminish. 

I hope the above is helpful. I don’t mean to be doom and gloom as there are lots of folks and organizations working hard to reverse the downward trends, but I think it is useful to acknowledge that there is a problem, so that we can all work together to bring the birds back.