For the birds: Can humans turn empathy into solutions?

Why We Wrote This

Bad news can devastate – or it can inspire. A report of a dramatic decline in bird populations is important, but even more so is how we as humans respond.

David Zalubowski/AP
A western meadowlark in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado, on April 14, 2019. According to a study released on Sept. 19, North America’s skies are quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970.

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There are nearly 3 billion fewer birds in the United States and Canada than there were in the 1970s, according to a paper published in the journal Science today.

This is not the only staggering statistic about life on Earth. In May, a United Nations biodiversity report warned that 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. Still, “it’s kind of a proactive message,” says Ken Rosenberg, lead author of today's report. “We’re seeing this loss, but we’re at the stage where it’s not too late to do something about it.”

Indeed, one common reaction to these disquieting reports has been a call to action. But the papers themselves represent a shift in how we think about nature under siege.

Instead of focusing on individual species that are at risk of extinction, we’re beginning to zoom out and think about life on Earth more broadly. The way humans respond to those global concerns may say something about our ability to leverage our species’ capacity for kinship and empathy.

“The normal standard feature of most human beings is to respond empathetically ... about the discomfort and suffering of others,” ethicist Jennifer Welchman says. “And that helps generate the desire to relieve it and not to cause it oneself.”

Imagine being out in nature. Maybe you’re in a forest, or your backyard. The sun is shining and a light breeze blows through the trees. Perhaps a squirrel runs by. A hawk or gull soars overhead. Songbirds dart from tree to tree.

Now, remove a quarter of the birds. What changed?

That scenario isn’t a stretch of the imagination. That’s exactly what’s happened in the United States and Canada since 1970, according to a study published today in the journal Science. In just 48 years, bird populations have declined by 29%. That’s nearly 3 billion birds

This is not the only staggering statistic about life on Earth. Just in the past year, there were reports that all insects might vanish within a century. In May, a United Nations biodiversity report warned that 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, many within decades. And now, it’s the birds.

Still, “it’s kind of a proactive message,” says Ken Rosenberg, lead author on the new study and applied conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “We’re seeing this loss, but we’re at the stage where it’s not too late to do something about it.” 

Indeed, one common reaction to these disquieting reports has often been a call to action. But the papers themselves represent a shift in how we think about nature under siege. Instead of focusing on individual species that are at risk of extinction, we’re beginning to zoom out and think about the state of life on Earth more broadly. And the way humans respond to those more global concerns may say something about our ability to leverage our species’ unique capacity for kinship and empathy.

“Some of these stories are depressing, but if they’re shifting people to notice something” broader, says Jennifer Welchman, professor of philosophy and ethics at the University of Alberta, “they may do some real good.”

Compelled to care

Three billion is a lot of birds to lose. And these aren’t a bunch of rare birds getting rarer. About 90% of those birds come from common, widespread families, like sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows. 

For the past several decades, campaigns to save wildlife have largely focused not on common creatures, but on the rarest. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act allots funding and efforts entirely to specific species that are under relatively immediate threat of extinction.

That framework has been successful at preventing extinction in many cases. But these new studies raise questions about what we value: Should we keep at least some of every species alive, or work to maintain populations of entire families of creatures?

Up until now, the threat of extinction – of anything – has been a particularly compelling motivator. 

“It’s so final,” says Susan Clayton, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “We can feel bad about declining numbers of birds, but there’s always” a chance they’ll bounce back, or we can do something later. There’s a sense of urgency around the idea of extinction – “they’re just gone,” she says.

There’s also an element of empathy, says Dr. Welchman, that is built into how humans interact with other beings. Seeing others suffer “makes us feel bad as well, in different ways, and want to relieve that suffering,” she says, just “like we want to relieve suffering in ourselves.”

So when humans can envision a specific animal suffering – like, say, a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril – it can be easier for them to connect with the animal’s pain and want to take action. 

We know we have this capacity to empathize with an individual creature that we see suffering from a specific threat. But when talking about a group of species facing myriad threats, is it too difficult to connect with that unspecified pain?

It’s not just animals’ welfare at stake. Fewer of one creature can throw an entire ecosystem out of whack, which could have repercussions for agriculture, clean air and water, and other environmental factors we take for granted. 

Humans’ sense of environmental stewardship can come from an obligation to future generations of humans, too, says Dr. Welchman. “There’s this sense that we have that no one generation is entitled to claim to own the Earth,” she says. “You shouldn’t destroy it and there shouldn’t be less of it when you’re done.”

Seeing the flock

The dismal bird news likely doesn’t come as a huge surprise to birders and backyard bird-watchers.

Typically the spring migration is like Christmas morning to avid birders, says Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association. But, he says, “there’s less under the tree than there used to be.” 

The rest of us, however, may be forgiven for not noticing the decline. Sparrows and finches still flit about parks and yards. Pigeons and geese clutter urban paths. But “people need to understand that they can’t trust that surface appearance,” says Dr. Welchman. 

This new paper may clue us in to the subtle but important differences in our environment, she says. For example, according to the paper, grassland bird populations have diminished by 53% (about 720 million birds) since 1970. Shorebirds have also lost more than a third of their population. 

But there are some bright spots. Some raptors and waterfowl showed an increase in their populations, likely due to conservation efforts over the past several decades. Since DDT was banned as a pesticide, bald eagles and other majestic birds have rebounded. Duck hunters and others have invested in conservation of their prey to maintain stable populations for generations to come. Bluebird populations have increased thanks to nest boxes in homeowners’ yards and gardens. 

There likely won’t be a silver bullet solution. The study did not examine causes of the decline, but habitat loss is likely to blame for much of it, says Dr. Rosenberg. We’re “squeezing nature out of the landscape,” he says, between the growth of cities and suburbs, and the intensification of agriculture. 

Still, there is hope, says Trevor Lloyd-Evans, director of the land-bird conservation program at the nonprofit Manomet in Plymouth, Massachusetts, pointing to successful efforts in the past. He says, “We certainly have the capacity to make a difference.”

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