A Tale of Two Birds


baltimore oriole

Its numbers are down by 50% over the last 50 years. The Baltimore oriole is just one of the iconic species of wild birds that are disappearing in North America.

Photo: Planet Friendly News

A recent report on the loss of three billion wild birds in Canada and the US over the last 50 years shocked many people and received widespread media attention. The report, in the prestigious journal Science, https://www.sciencemag.org rightfully raised the alarm about the loss of iconic birds such as the Baltimore oriole and 300 other species that populate our meadows, forests and backyard bird feeders. 

The outpouring of alarm and concern threw into sharp relief the little thought given to another bird — the chicken -- nearly 10 billion of whom are slaughtered for meat every year in Canada and the US. Are we missing a connection between these two statistics that sits right in front of us -- on our dinner plates? 

The comprehensive report on the massive decline of wild birds stresses the importance of these species.  They are so-called “indicator” species, think: three billion canaries in a coal mine, an important measure of the declining state of the natural environment and biodiversity of North America.  

The numbers of wild birds lost are truly stunning:

  • 53% of grassland birds;

  • 70% or 138 million meadowlarks that were common in meadows 40-50 years ago but are now rarely seen;

  • 92 million red wing blackbirds;

  • almost 50% of iconic Baltimore orioles; and,

  • more than 1 billion woodland birds.

The reasons for the decline are complex. But major causes include: the destruction and degradation of natural habitat due to urbanization and the growth of intensive agriculture; water pollution in part from factory farm run-off; and, use of pesticides that are killing the insects on which these birds feed. These factors are contributing to global warming which in turn is further exacerbating the destruction of habitat. 

But what of the lowly chicken? According to Oxford University and the UN FAO, more than 60 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat every year globally. This does not include chickens farmed for egg production, of whom billions are non-egg-producing males who are killed shortly after being born. The vast majority of these birds globally, and virtually all of them in Canada and the US, are raised in factory farm conditions that are part of the equation that leads to habitat loss, water pollution and the production of greenhouse gasses (the UN FAO says that animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of GHGs at 14.5% of global emissions, larger than all emissions globally from the transportation sector).   



Making the connection between raising and slaughtering billions of chickens each year, and the loss of habitat and other causes of the disappearance of wild birds.

And it is startling to think that future archaeologists, millions of years from now, who are excavating the fossil layer of the Anthropocene Era will discover that the most prevalent remains of our time will be billions of chicken bones. 

There is widespread concern about the fate of our wild birds and calls for action. Steps that individuals can take to stem their decline can be found at https://www.3billionbirds.org. They include:

  • Keep cats indoors, they needlessly kill 2.6 billion birds in North America every year;

  • Decorate windows to avoid bird strikes;

  • Limit use of pesticides around your home; and,

  • Buy certified, shade-grown coffee to protect their winter habitat in Latin America.

But, what about cutting back on eating chicken? Numerous scientific studies recommend that reducing meat consumption is one of the most effective ways individuals can lighten their carbon footprint and lessen the impact of climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. 

So, as we sit down to dinner, should we be recognizing that our consumption of one type of bird — chicken — is contributing to the massive decline of the wild birds of North America? Of course, the irony of mourning the loss of one type of bird (wild) while we chow down on another that once existed as a wild bird — and is now farmed — is a topic for another day.

 Sign up below to receive “Planet Friendly News” every month.


Planet Friendly News