With 3 billion birds gone from the landscape, the work of Pheasants Forever is more important than ever.
By Michael Brown
The first rays of light crest over a far hill. Light bounces off the frost-laden prairie grass and shrubs.
A rooster pheasant crows in the distance. A bobwhite sings out. A meadow lark announces the new day. A marsh wren insists you are invading his home.
These are sights and sounds we love on our early morning adventures.
But what would it be like if there were no bird songs to greet us? This is a terrible thought and one that hopefully will never be realized. But when we recall that there are 3 billion fewer birds today than there were 50 years ago
, it makes you stop and take notice.
It is important that we take the time on Earth Day to remember this story because it can galvanize movement and create change. The thing is, we don’t need a new movement … we just need to tell our story.
Pheasants Forever started with the same kind of jarring realization. Watch The Spark
after you finish reading this post. Dwindling number of birds made people come together to do something about it. Now, 37 years later, new research draws attention to changes that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
It’s probably not surprising to PF members that the largest factor driving the decline of bird species is the widespread loss and degradation of habitat. It’s the same story we hear for pheasants, quail, mule deer, elk, ducks and all other forms of wildlife we love.
In the end it always comes back to restoring, enhancing and protecting functioning habitat.
Grassland birds are seeing the greatest declines. That’s no surprise when you examine the losses to our prairies since Europeans arrived.
Grasslands of the central U.S. once covered 1.4 million square miles (that’s 896 million acres) from Canada down to Mexico. Today only about 30 percent of those grasslands remaining, and with continued conversion of grasslands to agricultural crops, we could see further declines in prairie species
With 1.7 million acres converted in 2018 alone, it’s not hard to imagine. We need agriculture though. It is imperative we have agriculture to feed people. So agriculture is not an enemy. Rather, it should be one of a conservationist’s greatest allies. What we need to do is find ways to increase sustainability for farmers and ranchers and their lands, while at the same time increasing the amount of habitat that is on the land.
This may seem counterintuitive. Two land uses on the same piece of ground at the same time?
Take for example the work Pheasants Forever does with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working Lands For Wildlife (WLFW) efforts and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the Southern Great Plains. Landowners and managers are enrolling marginal agricultural lands in CRP and signing up for assistance to develop grazing management systems to be more sustainable. By signing up for these programs, producers are helping secure their future on the land and hopefully their future generations.
Due to these efforts, however, birds are thriving. In a recent study, researchers found that in areas where producers signed up for CRP and grazing system development, songbirds have increased their populations by 2.4 million. Now this is nowhere near the 3 billion that have been lost, but it is an increase in numbers and it shows that if we focus our efforts in the right areas and work with private landowners, we can increase bird populations and support rural agricultural communities, economies, and families.
And oh, by the way, upland gamebirds such as pheasants and bobwhite quail and prairie chickens benefit.
By working with private landowners on the southern great plains and across the country, we can increase agricultural sustainability and increase the quantity and quality of wildlife habitat. That will positively impact wildlife populations.
On this Earth Day 2020, we cannot forget the “3 billion birds” report. But we cannot be discouraged by the loss of bird numbers. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to tell our story to more people, to make more people to be aware of the work Pheasants Forever and its partners are doing, and to embrace the opportunities that exist to help both wildlife and agricultural communities.
If we can accomplish that, then the future of bird populations – songbirds and gamebirds alike, for they share that vanishing prairie habitat – will continue to provide nature’s soundtrack for generations to come.
What can you do? Renew now and keep up your Pheasants Forever membership. Join now if you are not yet a member. And get involved with your local chapter to help make more wildlife habitat.
Michael Brown is Sage Grouse Initiative Capacity & Delivery Coordinator for Pheasants Forever. He lives in Montana.