Picture of a songbird
Bobolink in the Sandhills near Rose, Nebraska. This songbird’s population has been in a steady decrease since 1980. Photo courtesy of Larkin Powell.

Songbird populations across Nebraska and the rest of the country have been in a steady decline for decades due to a loss of habitat, especially prairie being converted into row crops. Scientists have been tracking the decline since the mid-1960s, but the songbirds may have been decreasing before then.

Dave Titterington, owner of the Wild Bird Habitat and Accessory store in Lincoln, phrased the loss of population differently.

“It’s not declining,” Titterington said. “It’s almost crashing.” 

The population of all birds has gone down by nearly 3 billion since 1970, according to a study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Nearly 40% of all songbirds have disappeared within the same time span.

“Some of these birds have been declining, and it may just be 1% a year, but after 60 years, you’ve lost a lot,” said Larkin Powell, conservation biology and animal ecology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Titterington has owned his store for almost 29 years and said he’s seen the loss of population.

“I’ve seen that decline in my own backyard, the number of birds that you attract to bird feeders,” Titterington said. “Today, a lot of people that have gotten into feeding birds don’t realize that because they never saw those big numbers. That’s one of the things we’re trying to convince people is that we’ve got to change.”

Wetlands in Nebraska’s Sandhills region are home to many diverse bird populations. Nebraska still has 10% of its wetlands still remaining, according to Powell, while Iowa has lost 99.9% of its wetlands.

However, every time a prairie is plowed up, songbirds across that area are losing their home.

“Most farms are now crop farms, ” Powell said. “There’s a few people that have these livestock farms. We don’t have these grassland pastures anymore that would have been home for birds, too. … A soybean field and a cornfield, there’s not any habitat there for the most part for birds to nest in.”

Titterington said that not only is shelter and space a part of habitat, but food and water have to be considered as they’ve been damaged by pesticides throughout the years.

Powell said that a lot of these birds only have one opportunity to reproduce.

“At most, a lot of singbirds might live for four or five years,” Powell said. “Most of them live for a year and a half and maybe get to nest once. If there’s no habitat to nest in or if the habitat they nest in is poor, they don’t carry out a nest and then they die, and we’ve lost that part of the population.” 

IMG 1438 scaled e1636031885333 - Songbird populations steadily declining across the country
Powell said that urban development can also impact habitat loss. For example, when 27th Street in Lincoln was extended to the interstate, the city covered up wetlands with concrete to make spots for supermarkets and car dealerships. Photo by Cody Frederick/NNS.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Resource Conservation Service and Fisheries and Wildlife Services are three federal groups encouraged to add back some habitat without losing any of their profit. 

“You think about those birds on our landscape, to me they’re almost like a signal that when we lose birds from these landscapes that the ecological function of our landscapes is not functioning,” Powell said.

On the state level, the Nebraska Natural Resources Districts and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are focusing on the same effort as the federal groups. But it’s not just the birds that are suffering, according to Powell.

“Birds are important to society because they bring a sort of aesthetic value to people that helps them feel connected to nature,” Powell said. “Not only that, but the loss of the bird population might say more about what humans are doing to the environment.”

“The bird’s disappearance kind of tells us yeah, we’ve lost wetlands and maybe it’s not the fact that we have less rails and blackbirds and common yellowthroats and other things that hang out around wetlands but also loss of that habitat can have a direct impact on our human population too,” Powell said.

Cody Frederick is a fifth-year student majoring in sports media, journalism and broadcasting while minoring in business administration and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is from a small town in Northeast Nebraska called Winside.