Bird population in Central Texas declining since 1970

It was a windy Wednesday afternoon at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. Jim Giocomo and Steve Riley gathered near a pond, binoculars in hand.  

“So right now, we’re in an urban area that’s pretty open. So we would expect to see some grassland birds -- some grasshopper sparrow, loggerhead shrike,”  said Giocomo, coordinator of the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, or OPJV, for American Bird Conservancy.

The “grassland birds” the pair are on the lookout for have not always been so difficult to spot. They have had a 53 percent reduction in population -- more than 720 million birds -- since 1970. 

“There’s an awful lot of central Texas that either is grassland or once was,” explained Riley, a conservation specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. 

The problem is bigger than Central Texas though and is not just isolated to grassland birds. According to a study published in Science in September, bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds, “signaling a widespread ecological crisis.” 

Evidence indicates the crisis has been brought on by human beings allowing pests to roam and using pesticides. Experts say the biggest factor is habitat destruction. 

“Going from kind of grassy and wooded areas to clean farming and residential areas,” said Giocomo. 

The buildings that replace the once wild areas are also to blame. 

“When the glass [windows] reflects the birds can’t see it differentiate that from the sky so, they end up flying into buildings,” Giocomo explained. 

Glass that does not reflect does exist so there is talk of changing building codes, but even then there is trouble after dark. 

“Having a light on attracts birds because they use the sun to navigate and the stars to navigate so at night when they’re trying to navigate the lights will confuse them,” Giocomo said. 

The numbers aren’t only troubling for birds; scientists are also studying changing insect and amphibian populations. 

“The closer to natural a system is, the closer to balance you’re gonna have,” said Riley. 

There are a number of things people can do to help bring balance to the system but most importantly, Riley asks people to keep their eyes open. 

“People just need to be more aware of what’s going on all around them, and we’re a part of all of this and if we keep losing bits and pieces of what is out there that only damages us, and our children and grandchildren,” he said. 

Giocomo and Riley also point to a bill introduced in Congress they believe could help. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, or RAWA, would provide $1.3 billion annually to state initiatives and $97.5 million to tribal nations to support at-risk fish and wildlife populations and their habitats. Texas is home to more than 1,300 of the 12,000 plant and animal species identified nationwide as "Species of Greatest Conservation Need."