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Northern bobwhite

Northern bobwhite populations are shrinking, but they are frequently spotted at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

North America is home to nearly three billion fewer birds than in 1970.

Let that sink in for just a second.

In the last 50 years, North America has lost one in four birds. That’s staggering.

Yet, the incredible loss of wildlife doesn’t get a lot of attention. Birds are still, relatively speaking, plentiful. It’s almost impossible to walk outside without seeing a cardinal, sparrow or blue jay. However, the downward trend is alarming and not sustainable.

These numbers aren’t the figment of a bird-brained rogue scientist. The estimates were published in the journal “Science” earlier this fall. The article was written using numbers compiled by the American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service. In addition, numbers were gleaned from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife waterfowl surveys.

Our bird populations are clearly in trouble.

The usual culprits bear the brunt of the blame.

Habitat loss continues to be a problem from the Arctic tundra to the grasslands of Illinois. That’s right, Illinois, the Prairie State, is virtually devoid of grassland habitat. About 60 percent of the state, more than 20 million acres was covered in prairie. Today, only about 2,500 acres is considered prairie habitat.

The virtual disappearance of bobwhite quail in Illinois is just an indication of dwindling grassland habitat.

The study shows that grasslands have lost nearly 720 million birds since 1970. Agricultural development and the use of pesticides are largely to blame. Populations of northern harriers, meadowlarks, bobwhite quail, dickcissel and various sparrow species are on the decline.

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Anecdotally, as a kid growing up on a farm in Clinton County in the late 1960s there seemed to be a meadowlark on every fence post surrounding grandpa’s pasture. Now, getting up close and personal with a meadowlark is a rare treat.

Deforestation and wildfires are also an issue for other species. Even populations of the seemingly omnipresent white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco are declining.

Yet, our country is marching straight backwards in terms of environmental awareness.

When environmental concerns are mentioned by the Trump administration it is generally in regards to rolling back protections granted during the past 30-50 years. Concern for the environment is not, and should not, be a partisan issue.

We all share this planet. We all rely on this planet, regardless of race, creed or political affiliation. The fact that both political parties aren’t carrying the banner for planet earth is personally mind-boggling. Thousands of acres of vital rainforest are being destroyed each week in the Amazon, and the destruction hardly registers in the news cycle.

Of course, Southern Illinoisans have our own unique set of environmental concerns. Next month the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will consider allowing a coal company to dump, possibly millions of gallons of water, per day into the Big Muddy River.

Initially, we were told the water would have a high chloride content that would be diluted by the river. Now, supposedly the water will be diluted before being poured into the river.

The very thought is revolting. The introduction of that much water disrupts the natural ebbs and flows of the river, but it is disgusting on another level. The Big Muddy River belongs to the people of Illinois. The notion that a private company can turn the river into its personal sewer … it’s unthinkable.

On the other hand, it’s that kind of thinking that has resulted in the United States losing three billion birds in the last 50 years.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler

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