Hunters often keep their eyes and ears open this time of year for reports on the fall flight forecast of ducks from North Dakota (up 9% from 2019) and late summer pheasant brood counts (should be better than last year).

Lost in this glimpse of what the 2020 fall hunting seasons might hold is a staggering number that is so closely tied to North Dakota’s prairie landscape that harbors, at times, an untold number of waterfowl and upland game birds.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Western meadowlark population is declining. The BBS launched in 1966 as an international avian monitoring program to track the status and trends of North American bird populations.

It’s been reported that the population of North Dakota’s state bird has declined 75% since 1970. This is an incredible fall for this prairie icon that was once so familiar.

More than 4,600 BBS routes exist across the United States and Canada, and 44 of those are in North Dakota. A survey route is 24.5 miles long and at every half-mile, the observer stands on the road and conducts a 3-minute point count, where every bird seen and heard within a quarter-mile radius is recorded.

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It’s important to note the details of these surveys are biologically accepted and not just anecdotal. I won’t doubt a landowner, hunter or bird watcher noting: “I sure don’t see many Meadowlarks like I used to.” Because we don’t.

BBS surveys involve logging not just if the species was present, but also the number of each species. A massive amount of bird data has been collected for a very long time, thanks to birders and biologists running BBS routes.

In the 1980s, scientists analyzing BBS data discovered alarming rates of decline for many species, especially long-distance migrants and grassland birds. Yet, in the 1980s, there weren’t a lot of cheerleaders for nongame bird conservation. There was, however, a lot of enthusiasm for waterfowl, thus the creation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Wildlife conservation leaders from state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, international partners, and many nongovernment organizations, realized a similar effort was needed for “landbirds” and in 1990 formed Partners in Flight.

Landbirds are described as breeding birds that principally use terrestrial habitats throughout the year – raptors, grouse, woodpeckers, flycatchers, jays, chickadees, warblers, sparrows, blackbirds and many others – and generally live most of their lives on dry land.

The Partners in Flight mission is simple: “Keeping common birds common and helping species at risk through voluntary partnerships.” The PIF network includes more than 150 partner organizations distributed throughout the Western Hemisphere, dedicated to all aspects of landbird conservation from science, research, planning and policy development, to land management, monitoring, education and outreach.

PIF partners aim to halt and reverse bird population declines before species are listed as threatened or endangered, a cost-effective and proactive solution for common sense bird conservation. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department supports this mission and applauds PIF on its recent 30-year anniversary.

What makes the future cloudier is scientists can’t pinpoint one particular issue leading to the meadowlark’s decline. Habitat loss is a key factor, but habitat degradation, loss of insects (food), increased collision mortality, disease or other factors could all be contributors.

Last year, scientists quantified the decline and increase of all birds (including landbirds, waterfowl, waterbirds and shorebirds) and concluded the continent has lost 3 billion birds since the 1970s, or nearly 30% of the total number of birds. That is a net loss, so even with substantial increases in some populations, such as snow geese, there are many fewer birds in the skies today.

As hunters fan out across the prairie, take a minute to stop, look and listen. What you see and hear, or don’t, is important.

Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.