Thanksgiving and the Rise and Fall of the Bird Empire

 Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

I was struck yesterday reading this report that the population of wild birds in the UK has dropped by 44 million since 1966. The calculation comes from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, and others. Today’s 166 million nesting birds numbered 210 million in 1966. Which means that for every five birds you might have seen while strolling the British Isles 46 years ago you’ll see only four now. Our world grows quieter… Or does it? 

Numbers from The Economist:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from The Economist: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons 

Because at the same time that wild birds are declining worldwide the kingdom of poultry rises. In 1960 there was roughly one chicken for for every person on Earth. Today there are three chickens for every person alive. That’s 19-plus billion chickens at any one time—a wildly dynamic number since in the US alone 23 million chickens are killed daily, 269 a second

Numbers from Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers from Graphic: Julia Whitty. Turkey photo: lynn.gardner via Flickr

To put it bluntly there are shiteloads of birds today. Just not as many in the air or on the waters or in the forests or grasslands or islands like there used to be. Many are in coops and worse. The lucky ones are free range. Globally we now eat almost as much poultry as pork, the number one meat consumed. Domestic birds thrive albeit mostly miserably. 

 Based on National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Based on National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

And wild birds decline. The National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count reveals that North America’s most common birds in decline are down 68 percent since 1967—from 17.6 million to 5.35 million. Some species have declined 80 percent in the past 4.5 decades.  

Numbers from the National Audubon Society:  Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia CommonsNumbers from the National Audubon Society: Graphic: Julia Whitty. Photo: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons

What’s hopeful for me is that many of these depressing data come from something new and refreshing: the rise of citizen science. The Christmas Bird Count is the largest and oldest citizen science effort underway, according to Wikipedia. It transformed a bloody 19th century ritual—an annual day-after-Christmas no-holds-barred bird hunt to kill whatever, wherever, the more the merrier—into a bird count. Courtesy of the unusual foresight of ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the newborn National Audubon Society. I’m thankful for that. And for where the next 100 years of that awakening might lead us.


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