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Valley Wilds Article | For the Birds by Interpreter Christine 

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Photo Credit: Birdwatching (

I became a birder reluctantly.  Mammals were mysterious, reptiles were elusive and exciting… and have you ever flipped logs in hopes of discovering a secret salamander??  Birds were, to put it bluntly, common.  Easy to see and everywhere, whether in your backyard, city streets, or open spaces.

A pair of binoculars, some great teachers, and a job in a wetland later, and I’m happy to say I’ve been converted into a bird lover.  And along the way, I’ve realized that it is the commonness of birds that makes them such a great “in” for people to connect with nature.

The Rise of Birdwatching

A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service study found that 45 million Americans birdwatched in 2016.  The vast majority, 86%, did so close to home.  This aligns strongly with what was also found to be the most popular around-the-home wildlife activity: feeding wild birds.  Providing food and habitat for birds, in the forms of bird feeders, bird baths, bird boxes, or planting native plants, is a great way to bring nature to you (sometimes without even needing to walk out your front door!).  Recently, when many of us were in lockdown during the pandemic, birding saw an increase as people connected with nature nearby.  The Audubon Bird Guide App, essentially a digital field guide on your smartphone, had a modest 750,000 users in 2019 before seeing a jump to 1.2 million in 2020.  eBird, a community science tool used to record bird sightings, had a 40% increase in observations from April 2019 to April 2020. 

Exploring the Diverse World of Birds

And there are a lot of different birds to see!  Birds represent the most diverse group of vertebrates on the planet with more than 10,000 species.  In a May 2021 paper published in PNAS, scientists estimated that there are roughly 50 billion individual birds globally.  That’s about 6 times as many birds as people on the planet!

We are fortunate here in California to experience some incredible bird diversity and numbers, especially in the fall and spring as birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway.  With significant layovers along the coast, in our bays and marshes, and throughout the Central Valley, this migration route offers birders the chance to witness jaw-dropping numbers of birds.

Perceptions of Avian Abundance Over Time

But would people 50 years ago be awed by these numbers? 100 years ago? 500?

Patrick Orozco, Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council Tribal Chairman, speaks in a 2014 interview about indigenous Ohlone peoples’ histories passed down through oral traditions.  He recounts a story “from the Indian’s perspective” of the European colonizer Gaspar De Portola traveling through the Central Coast in 1769:

“The reason Portola named it the Pajaro River was he scared an abundance of ‘winged people’.  Pajaro means bird.  There were so many that it blocked out the sun, an abundance that we will never see again: Wasaka, the condor, Seri, the eagle, Kaknu, the hawk, Koohooetoo, the owl, Paratu, the woodpecker.  These names are mostly Mutsun. They are all [now] endangered.”

George C. Yount, a North Carolina-born emigrant to Mexico and later California ranchero and fur trapper, spoke of his time at the San Francisco Bay in 1833: 

“The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay… in flocks of millions… When disturbed, they arose to fly.  The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder.” 

So, the awesome number of sparrows in our grasslands, woodpeckers in our forests, and waterfowl in our waterways today?  A fraction of historical avian abundance.  But if this is the case, why are we humans still awestruck by the modern number of birds witnessed?  

The Decline of North American Bird Populations

A lot of this can be explained by “shifting baseline syndrome.”  First coined by landscape architect Ian McHarg in 1969 and now widely applied in the world of ecology, conservation and environmentalism, the term describes a loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is “natural” due to a lack of experience, memory, and/or knowledge of past conditions.  Humans’ short memories can lead us to assume that what we experience as a generation growing up is normal–and over several generations with that assumption, an accurate baseline for “normal” (and changes away from that) becomes increasingly difficult to track. 

A Critical Time for Birds and Us

The most wildflowers you’ve ever seen?  The largest fish you’ve ever caught?  The biggest flock of birds you’ve ever watched?  A 10th of what was once considered normal.

Thank goodness for histories—and science.  Without records and benchmarks, it would be easier to not see the decline in birds for the dramatic loss of biodiversity that it is.  And they are declining. 

A 2019 study published in Science found that the North American bird population is down by nearly 3 billion breeding adults since 1970.  That’s an appalling decline of 29% in the past 50 years alone.  The contributing factors are many: pesticide use, habitat loss, outdoor cats, invasive species, climate change.  And this loss includes even the most common birds you and I may take for granted, such as robins and sparrows.

Map and chart showing bird population changes in North America by habitat since 1970, indicating a net loss of birds.


How you can help our feathered friends

Now is a critical time for birds… and for us.  With more people birding than ever (and a more diverse demographic of birders than ever), we must take action to help birds.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a list of “Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds.”  This includes joining a community science project to record your own observations of birds, contributing to those ongoing benchmarks of diversity and population numbers that can counter shifting baseline syndrome.  One such count is happening this month: the Great Backyard Bird Count.  This global count can be done anywhere you enjoy birds, on your own or with a group.  You can even join the rangers to count the birds who call Sycamore Grove Park home.

LARPD Open Space is celebrating birds all February long, with different events and programs you can participate in to learn more about and work to protect our native bird species.  If you aren’t already, it is my hope that we can turn you into a bird lover, too.

Happy Birding,


February is For the Birds at LARPD!   



Global abundance estimates for 9,700 bird species | PNAS]

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Decline of the North American avifauna | Science

Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds | Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Great Backyard Bird Count – Join us each February when the world comes together to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds.

Activity detail | Online Services (