Nuances with Cornell University Lab of Ornithology Bird Study

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There’s Nuance behind the Recent Bird Decline Study by Scientists at Cornell University

The journal Science documented an estimated total loss of 2.9 billion birds. But is that the whole picture?


The finding received widespread media coverage. “Where Have All the Birds Gone?” a headline in The Seattle Times asked. A piece in Vox wondered whether the trend would end in a “bird apocalypse.” (Not necessarily, the piece conceded.) And the headline on a front-page story in The New York Times declared that “Birds Are Vanishing From North America.” The dramatic opening line of the piece: “The skies are emptying out.”

The declines were certainly notable, but some ecologists have begun to question whether the calculus undertaken in the paper truly warranted this sort of language, and the ominous future it seemed to suggest, the constraints of high-profile journal publishing, and sophisticated publicity can sometimes combine to drive a story into the news cycle while eclipsing important uncertainties, and perhaps even delivering an incomplete message to the public.

The researchers recognized that their paper would draw considerable public attention, and they also began thinking about how to publicize the result. Researchers realized, “okay, this is going to be big, and we have to be ready for it. We have to use this as a springboard for messaging.”


Brian McGill, a macro ecologist at the University of Maine
• Of the 2.9 billion birds lost, many belong to species that are not native to North America.
• Conservation agencies have actually spent a lot of money to trying to drive down or eliminate invasive species.
• Population numbers may have actually been inflated in 1970, a result of generations of forest clearance and prairie destruction.
• Some of the decline may not be a catastrophic drop, but simply a return to an earlier baseline population that precedes the arrival of Europeans.
• Of the 3B figure are among the most abundant bird species on the continent.

They got the numbers out in this publication knowing it would draw media attention but according to McGill “it does not necessarily suggest a looming extinction event”.

Pictures Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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