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Vanishing Birds Project

The Vanishing Birds Project

By Linda Byrne and Maggie Dubris






The Vanishing Birds Project was created by visual artist Linda Byrne and writer/musician Maggie Dubris to draw attention to the issues concerning global warming and how humanity’s actions affect the world’s ecosystems.  The vanishing bird population is one indicator of this destruction, with bird extinctions already topping fifty times the natural rate of loss. 


  drawing by Linda Byrne




Vanishing Birds In The 21st Century

The rate of extinction for birds has been increasing dramatically in the past 500 years. In pre-history, bird species vanished at the rate of about one a century; since 1500, birds species have been going extinct at a rate of about one species per year, and that rate is expected to increase to ten species a year in the coming century, according to researchers at Duke University. This increase is directly attributable to human alteration of the environment.


The seven categories of threat that are recognized by the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as driving the loss of bio-diversity are: habitat loss and fragmentation, land degradation, invasive species, unsustainable harvesting of natural resources, nutrient loading (release of nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment as a result of farm fertilization), pollution, and climate change. In the past forty years, world population has doubled. More than half the synthetic fertilizer ever used on the planet has been used since 1985. Almost a third of the earth’s land surface is now cultivated, with more land being converted to farmland since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.


For birds, habitat loss is the single greatest threat, with deforestation (currently, an area the size of Ireland is stripped of forest every year), contamination and development of shorelines, and fragmentation of existing wilderness by power lines and roads all contributing to the loss of bird populations. In his landmark book on island biogeography and extinction, The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen likens the complex interweaving of a wilderness ecosystem to a fine Persian rug; it is possible to cut the rug into a hundred pieces, and have the same amount of rug, but what you have isn’t a hundred Persian rugs, but a hundred unraveling rags, that can never again be reassembled into the undamaged whole.


Once a wilderness is cut by human settlements, power lines, or roads, elements are lost that are very difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish. Similarly, there are bird population levels below which a species is doomed to extinction. We have no way of knowing exactly what these levels are. For the famously extinct passenger pigeon, who traveled in flocks over a million strong, the number may have been quite high, in the tens of thousands. Once the critical number is reached, the march to extinction has begun. And when the bird is gone, it is gone forever. Along with its song, and its nests, and the behaviors that were peculiar to it.


The amazing variety of birdlife on earth is a legacy that we leave to future generations, just as it was left to us. Aside from their usefulness as natural pollinators and insect predators, the loss of the pure, clear song of a piping plover by the lakeside on an early summer morning diminishes our world in a way that is palpable to anyone who has ever had the joy of hearing it.


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