Chickadee photo by Jay Burney

Maybe I’m the only one who saw the recent articles and posts detailing a shocking loss in the North American bird population. Somehow, I don’t think so. I think you all saw it. However, to reiterate: we’ve lost 1 in 4 birds since 1970, almost 3 billion. What the hell?

These are not rare birds and it’s not about extinction. The figures—compiled by a number of long-running sources and surveys and published first in Science journal (see link above)—document an across-the-board loss in our “common” backyard birds, including blackbirds, finches, robins, and sparrows. The figures demonstrate a loss of habitat that is little less than complete ecological disruption.

Where efforts have been made to save birds like the American eagle and many waterbirds, those particular species thrive.  In the meantime, we’ve lost track of the birds we ignore at the feeders, as we hope that their cooler brethren will soon arrive.

Unintentional poem. The point is that this trend clearly points to a future with zero birds. Forty-nine years isn’t much time. If that many birds can be lost within less than fifty years, it won’t take long to disappear the rest. I say disappear because the treatment of wildlife by humans isn’t far removed from those who ran the gulags and the killing fields. Not in terms of horror, of course, but definitely in terms of efficiency. Our obsession with agricultural production, unimpeded development, and spotless lawns has led to a cold and thoughtless destruction of nature that may very well lead to the obliteration of the planet.

In the end, the birds will be collateral damage.

Is there hope? Well … first, let’s elect a government that cares whether or not our grandchildren have a planet to live on.

For the short term: there are the seven directives Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology recommends that most ordinary citizens/homeowners can easily follow. Take a look at them. The ones I take to heart include marking big windows so birds can see them, reducing plastics, and, mainly, when it comes to gardeners, maintaining and creating habitat. I am not so sure this habitat has to be exclusively native. I have shrubs and trees of all kinds and birds love them. (A ton of chickadees hang out in my Boston ivy.) And the cats. Keep them inside or in their catio. That’s all I got and, honestly, I don’t have high hopes.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Common NPK fertilizer kills earth worms and mycorrhizal fungi and more. Stop using it. Mulch made of rubber crumb from car tires is toxic to soil, and ground water, and at warm temps turns to fumes and enters thru our skin.

    Birds love open meadow next to trees. Life happens on the margins. Birds love trees with bare trunks and leafy tops….

    Of course there is more…………….

    And what about all the insects we don’t have any more?

    As a girl, whenever we took a road trip front windshield was COATED in dead bugs. Now? Barely 1-2.

    HOA rules and deed restrictions must be addressed. They’re killing birds & insects & ……..

    BTW, American flag flies at my ca. 1900 front porch. Found this one in the mud, rescued to serve again.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. It is about native plants. From his lecture: “Native plants support local food webs. Invasive plants disrupt local food webs, and ornamental plants offer very little in the way of contributing to the local food web.”
    The big thing is that non-native plants don’t support vibrant insect communities. Without insects birds cannot reproduce. This is actually why people have planted non-native plants in the past. Their pests are trapped back in another part of the world.

  3. Does the study predict a future with zero birds? No, in fact it specifically states that some species are increasing in number. Some ecologists have criticized this study since its release was designed to be promoted heavily in the media. There is pressure on scientists to highlight the edge figures in their data (the 3 billion number, e.g.) in order to publish in a high-profile magazine like Science. Even many of the scientists involved in the study admit they did not want to use language like “crisis” and “collapse” but felt they needed to in order to get media attention. And it worked!

    That is not to say that there isn’t a true ecological concern, but sensationalizing the issue (with headlines like “Silent”) doesn’t help the cause of science.

    • Normally I don’t like exaggeration, but if it helps to save birds and increase mindfulness of birds, I don’t mind getting a little overheated. And given all that is happening with the environment, I am not sure it’s possible to be too passionate about losing species—and everything else that is endangered.

    • It would be interesting to see what are the species that are increasing. Starlings and house sparrows aren’t wins for the environment.

      Nor are vultures a win, because their numbers are probably soaring due to roadkill.

  4. Thanks. Well said. I would add one more item to the list of things gardeners can do to help our birds: do not use pesticides (including herbicides) in your garden. This was also in Cornell’s list of suggestions.

    As for whether or not native plants are required, I will add a couple of recent studies that don’t support such a limitation. Birds are as likely to use non-native plants as native plants. A study was based on 173 skilled bird watchers responding to 1,000 surveys about bird interactions with plants. “Interact” was defined as eat, nest, perch, glean, etc. 47% of observations of feeding by 139 bird species were of seeds or fruits of non-native plants. 35% percent of all “habitat interactions” were with non-native plants and 26% of all nesting activity was in non-native plants. (Aslan and Rejmanek, “Avian use of introduced plants: Ornithologist records illuminate interspecific associations and research needs,” Ecological Applications, 2010.)

    Another academic scientist found 120 studies from 30 countries that quantified the biodiversity of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and other plants in urban landscapes. These studies reveal that “science does not support the supposition that native plantings are required for biodiversity…an automatic preference for native trees when planning in urban areas is not a science-based policy.” (Chalker-Scott, “Nonnative, Noninvasive Woody Species Can Enhance Urban Landscape Biodiversity,” Arboriculture & Urban Forestry, 2015)

    John Marzluff reaches the same conclusion in his book, “Subirdia.” Marzluff expresses a strong preference for native plants throughout his book, but his research as an academic ornithologist in Seattle is inconsistent with that preference: “The forests of Seattle and its suburbs now embrace 141 species of trees, including 30 native species and ornamentals from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Some are problematic invaders, but in total they provide a diverse menu of foods and nesting and roosting sites for birds.”

    Climate change requires that we open our minds to non-native plants that will survive changed and changing conditions. When the climate changes, vegetation changes.

    • Thanks! Yes. The science is not there for -requiring- natives for this habitat. Of course I have a lot of natives and love to use them, but I find that birds seem to rejoice in whatever I have. More important to see that they have water.

  5. Please unsubscribe me from this list. I really do enjoy this blog but I am so tired of absolutely everything being political. I cant go in a kitchen store with a towel telling me to be kind, or a pet store stating that I need for my dog to have a rainbow colored collar to support lgbt. And then this came in my inbox – I look forward to reading the rant but don’t tell me who to vote for! This one was the tipping pont.

    • I think you can unsubscribe yourself. There is a link at the bottom of your Feedblitz email. I did not realize that recommending a government that cares about the future of the planet was such a partisan statement.

  6. I read the bird articles a week or so ago and was shocked. I care, and I think I’m doing the best I can, other than buying shade-grown coffee. I’ll check into the shade-grown coffee.

    For the birds:
    I use cloth bags. I have since the late 1980’s. I’ve not purchased a plastic garbage bag in over 5 years. I try to purchase as little plastic as possible, but it’s hard.
    There is a HUGE mix of plants in my garden–natives & non-natives–including plants that produce fruits/seeds the birds eat.
    I don’t own cats, so it’s not an issue.
    I have 3 bird baths that I keep clean and filled.
    There are lots of shrubs for birds to nest in and the birds do use them for this. I also have bird houses.
    My lot has ancient trees–oaks, pecans, a hack berry, & older cherry laurels. Hawks and owls use these trees.
    I keep a large brush pile all wildlife can use. (15′ x 4′ x 4′)
    I don’t use pesticides (although I’m tempted to use Neem for my prolific spider mite population.)
    I grow grasses that produce seed birds like to eat.
    I don’t cut the seed heads from some plants so the birds can eat them. (They are hideously ugly, but I leave them.) However, I don’t feed the birds commercial bird seed because I’ve read conflicting info. on this.

    My garden may not be pretty, but it’s definitely bird-friendly.

  7. What unnerves me is that my garden is consciously bird-friendly too: trees, water, native plants, no chemicals in spray or fertilizer, brush pile, little mown space. But I still see some species decline. Goldfinches are stable, for instance, but the treasured swallows are fewer each year. One owl is gone, as is the pileated woodpecker that occasionally stopped by. I know our own property is about the only space we can really control directly, but I feel like we’re gonna need to find better ways to protect local, and then national environment.

  8. They can talk about planting natives and not using pesticides all they want but the elephant in the room is habitat loss. And yet you never hear anything about changing land use regulations like exclusionary zoning which has driven suburban sprawl for the last 70 years or encouraging people to move back to efficient urban cores instead of the bright and shiny new development on Farmer Bob’s old land.

  9. Outdoor cat numbers should be reduced too to help bird numbers. Trap, neuter, release programs help to reduce future numbers, but it’s highly questionable if catching a cat, fixing it, and then putting it back into the outdoor environment to continue to wreak havoc on the small animal populations is a wise technique.

    Trap, neuter, and release is basically just a feel-good technique. I’m speaking as a person who loves cats more than dogs; I’m not a cat hater.

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