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29% of birds lost worldwide impacts Southern Oregon

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Following the jarring news that habitat loss and insecticides have triggered a 29% loss in North American bird life since 1970, the Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland says it will continue research into Southern Oregon’s two most impacted birds — the western meadowlark (the state bird) and the dark-eyed junco.

KBO’s research on oak grassland birds in recent years has produced data sets that became part of the science for the shocking study showing that 2.9 billion birds have disappeared from the U.S. and Canada.

“In the past, studies have focused on at-risk birds,” said John Alexander, executive director of KBO, “but what’s unique here is this study shows that birds are in crisis across the spectrum. This paper brings the problem from our forests and fields to our backyards — and our own well-being.”

The bombshell study, published Thursday in the prestigious Science magazine, is the most complete attempt to learn what is happening to avian populations and has shocked researchers and conservation groups, the New York Times said Thursday, with the National Audubon Association calling it a “full-blown crisis.”

However, said Alexander, “we can be hopeful, while keeping in mind we don’t have much time.”

KBO Science Director Jaime Stephens observed, “Should you be worried? Well, the study documents the loss of over a quarter of our birds, and if the environment can’t sustain birds, then it can’t sustain us.”

Threats to wildlife have often been laid at the doorstep of urbanization and bug-killing chemicals, but this study notes outdoor cats and windows are responsible for large numbers of bird deaths, said Stephens, adding that we should keep felines indoors and put stickers on windows to warn birds.

In addition, KBO oversees scores of birdwatchers engaged in “science-based conservation,” quantifying bird numbers and migrations, he said, in “one of the longest running biological surveys on Earth.”

The study highlights two very common species for Oregon and much of the nation — the western meadowlark, which has declined by 139 million, and the junco, down by 168 million, causing Stephens to note, “those are big numbers.”

In response to Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book “Silent Spring,” the nation sprang into action, banning DDT and saving the peregrine falcon, bald eagle and other birds, said Alexander, so we have demonstrated we can and must do something major, because this study shows “even the most common” birds on the chopping block.

Alexander says scientists were aware of the avian collapse, but seeing it quantified and published is “a nasty barometer.” It will, however, inform and better enable KBO’s partners, such as Lomakatsi Restoration Project, in better management of oak woodlands, helping it compete with conifers, Alexander said.

Does climate change underlie the decimation of birds? Yes, says Alexander.

“Birds are one of the best indicators of environmental health. They are the canary (in the coal mine). This signals that natural systems are being severely degraded by human activity.”

Far from being a raft of bad news, the study lays a foundation of data and conclusions that KBO and other environmental organizations can point to as an irrefutable body of fact for its fundraising, grants, research and managing oak woodlands, he said. KBO gets 15 percent of its budget from citizen donations, and this should underline the seriousness of the mission, he notes.

KBO will hold an educational wine gala Sunday at Grizzly Peak Winery to raise money for its work. The KBO “Wings and Wine” fundraiser, scheduled from 3 to 7 p.m., features live music by Eight Dollar Mountain, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, local wine and beer, a live auction, an art gallery, a field trip, and an opportunity to hobnob with the birding community.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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A Western meadowlark hangs out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.