By Conor Courtney
UW Newslab 

Massive population decline in Mill Creek, county

Christmas bird count confirms the number of bird species in Mill Creek have dropped over the past few decades

 

Last updated 3/6/2020 at 10:34am

Courtesy Conor Courney

Two Western Grebes swim near the Union Bay Natural Area at the University of Washington at dusk. According to the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, the number of birds and species in the Mill Creek area have dropped over the past few decades.

The nation's largest community science event confirmed in December that the continent-wide decline in bird populations due to climate change is impacting the Pacific Northwest.

Over 100 members of the Pilchuck Audubon Chapter participated in the Audubon Society's 120th annual Christmas Bird Count, counting the number of birds and species in a 15-mile diameter centered near Martha Lake in Lynnwood.

The group counted the lowest number of species since 2010, and the lowest number of birds since 2011 according to Rick Taylor, the compiler of the Pilchuck Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. The total number of birds took a particularly large hit, declining by nearly 10,000 birds against a 10-year average, a 20% decline.

"Even in the Mill Creek area, you can see the number of birds and species decline as more habitat is converted into roofs and parking lots," Rick Taylor the compiler of the statistics from the Pilchuck Audubon Society's count, said. "Birds aren't talking about climate change, they're screaming about it," Taylor said.


It's important to watch birds and their populations, he added, because they tell us about the health of the environment.

Taylor said that these declines are especially stark at Thomas Corner, near the former Buffalo farm, where prime bird habitat has been eradicated.

The total number of birds declined by more than 70% since 2015, from around 10,000 birds to just 2,600 in the span of four years. These trends match national and international bird trends. According to a recent report, considered by several ornithologists to be one of the most exhaustive studies on migratory birds, the number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by 29% since 1970, a decrease of nearly 2.9 billion birds.

"This is heartbreaking," said Alejandro Rico-Guevara, one of the Ornithology Curators at the Burke Museum and an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Washington.

Birds that used to be prevalent in Washington, like Common Murs, are now more likely to be seen dead on beaches than alive, said Taylor.

While the disappearance of birds is bleak, the Christmas bird count represents one of the most well-known community science events.

"You don't have to be a trained scientist to contribute super valuable data to science, which I think is pretty neat," said Rico-Guevara. In Rico-Guevara's work on hummingbirds, community members sending in photographs of hummingbirds feeding has increased the amount of data he can capture.


Additionally, he said, community members can help track migration patterns and times. Databases like eBird, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and iNaturalist, created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences, are both tools that researchers and the public can use.

Cindy Easterson, an avian biologist and the President of the Pilchuck Audubon Chapter, said that community science is especially effective for informing policy at the local level and surveying local areas that are hard for other researchers to access. Community scientists have long been aware of the threats to birds.

As populations have continually dropped over the last 50 years, birders have seen their beloved animals fade away, with little action from the government to protect them.

Rico-Guevara sees hope in the younger generation that is intently focused on solving the climate crisis, while nature makes Easterson feel most hopeful.

"I think it's really easy to take on that doom and gloom because we are faced with significant threats," said Eaterson, "but you don't want to lose sight of the fact that nature is an amazing, awe-inspiring thing that can buoy you up every season."

 

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