Conserving avian diversity

BANNER IMAGE: Yellow-rumped Warbler. | Photo by Roger Hangarter

Birds mark the changing seasons and their numbers indicate the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Birds hold great cultural, ecological, and economic importance—providing valuable services to natural and agricultural systems. Birds are also in steep decline. A study published in Science in 2019 found that North American bird populations have declined by an alarming 3 billion individuals since 1970, a loss of nearly 30% of all birds. To stop the staggering loss of birds, we must identify the causes of their decline, recommend solutions in conservation practice and policy, and broaden awareness of the need for an urgent response.

MCBB Co-Director Ellen Ketterson, in her own words, describes the loss of bird biodiversity and the need to take action.

Description of the video:

Text description of video of Ellen Ketterson discussing loss of bird biodiversity and the need for action
Interview/video by Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Research

Ellen Ketterson is a Distinguished Professor of Biology at Indiana University. She is also the Founding Director of the Environmental Resilience Institute. Her research involves an experimental approach to life-history evolution that she calls ’phenotypic engineering.’ By treating birds with hormones, documenting the phenotypic consequences of hormonal treatment, and relating these consequences to fitness, she hopes to understand how natural selection shapes organisms as integrated units.

Ketterson explains that bird migration sets the season for us. The birds leave in the winter and come back in the summer. Bird migration also has an economic significance, and people refer to that as ecological services. The birds disperse seeds, they pollinate plants, they eat a lot of insects, and they are also indicators of the health of the environment. If birds are in decline, it really means that the quality of our environment is in decline as well.

She believes we should be concerned about birds because they’re declining in numbers for a lot of reasons. One of the main reasons is habitat loss. If a bird doesn’t have a place to feed or to live, then there are going to be fewer birds in the world. Another threat includes window strikes where birds run into skyscrapers or windows of people’s homes. Cats, particularly feral cats, are taking down lots of birds as well. In short, there are a lot more birds dying with fewer opportunities for them to be born.

She states that birds are in steep decline. In the past 50 years, there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America. In the world as a whole, there’s around 10,000 bird species and about 1,000 are species of serious concern. Not all birds are equally effected though. Grassland birds, forest birds, and coastal birds are in decline. On the other hand, Waterfowl birds are doing good, which could be evidence that preserving habitats for birds can be successful.

In terms of how to help, Ketterson says if you have time or money, give it to a land trust because preserving land is forever. If you have a cat, keep them indoors as best you can. Turn out the lights during migration season so that fewer birds are running into windows. Another big way to help is to talk to your neighbors. If you share your concerns with them, they will likely be receptive and also may have a better understanding of how important the birds are to this world.

Interview Questions:

  1. Can you explain the significance of bird migration?
  2. What are the different types of migrating threats that birds are facing? How severe is this issue?
  3. Where do we see this happening the most?
  4. What are some of the ways people can help?

The Midwest Center for Birds and Biodiversity, whose founding is currently underway, is dedicated to conserving avian diversity through research, community outreach, and education. MCBB members are researchers, educators, and community members.

The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), also known as North American opossum, is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. (Photo was flipped horizontally from original.) Photo by Steve Bell


The Midwest Center for Birds and Biodiversity expresses its appreciation to those contributing to this website. Special thanks to Roger Hangarter and Steve Bell for their stunning photography found throughout these pages and to Terri Greene for assembling the website.