Lecture highlights bird population decline

A field biologist holds a yellow-billed cuckoo. 

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Mark Hopey, who educates regarding bird populations, bands birds so their life cycle, breeding habits, and general health can be evaluated.

On Friday, Aug. 28, Mark Hopey presented “Monitoring Bird Populations at Highlands Biological Station: A Long Term Survey.” Hopey, a field biologist for 25 years and director of programming for the Blue Ridge Bird Observatory, conveyed the importance of education about birds in order to understand conservation efforts. Paige Engelbrektsson, nature center education specialist at the Highlands Biological Foundation, presented the last of this year’s Virtual Zahner Lecture series, which began in the 1930s as a way to educate the public about natural history and conservation.  

“Educating the public is a big part of our mission,” said Hopey. “Birds are in decline. They have been slowly disappearing from view for many decades, which is nothing new. This has been forecasted and predicted for many years. Published in Science magazine last year was a report that populations have diminished 29-30 percent. That adds up to a whopping 2.9 million birds in North America alone. For various reasons, habitat loss or climate change … there are less birds.”

Much data about birds has been collected in and around the Highlands Biological Station, according to Hopey, “to try to understand trends in populations.” Mist nets managed by “trained” individuals catch birds so that they can safely be evaluated, banded and studied before being released. 

“We determine age and gender of the bird,” said Hopey, explaining that the work is part of a MAPS program, a collaborative effort among public agencies, non-governmental groups, and individuals focused on the conservation of birds and their habitats. “We learn how the birds are reproducing around the station and how well they are surviving … get a real feel for what’s going on with the local populations. We need to understand the entire life cycle of birds.” 

Hopey said that this year’s efforts resulted in specialists handling 149 birds, including 21 total species – eight of which are labeled “residents,” while 13 were “neotropical migrants.” Resident birds will typically inhabit an area year-round, Hopey noted, and people can observe backyard and hiking trail birds to determine if there are bands around the birds’ feet.  

Hopey explained that individuals do not need to have a biology degree to do their “bit” to protect and promote bird populations. 

“Clean bird feeders and keep them filled, volunteer at the Highlands Biological Station, hang strings in front of windows to protect birds from flying into windows, and keep cats indoors during the day. Everybody can make a positive difference. During the fall migration, which is occurring now, young birds are moving through and will nest in native plants and trees. Avoid using yard pesticides if possible. And stay educated about the environment at places like the station.”

Individuals interested in obtaining more information can visit bigbaldbanding.org or highlandsbiological.org.