It wasn’t until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that I developed an interest in birds. On a walk in my neighborhood, I spotted a pileated woodpecker hammering on the trunk of an oak tree. I was awe-struck by this strange creature with a dramatic red crest and yellow eyes. I realized that I had never truly noticed the plants or animals I have shared a community with for many years. I became aware of my non-human neighbors for the first time.
Countless other people have a story like mine. Stay-at-home orders and social isolation sparked a boom in bird watching during the pandemic. Wild bird supply retailers reported sales increases of up to 50 percent, and public participation in bird monitoring soared. More recent data reveal that interest in bird watching has persisted beyond lockdown periods. As spring unfolds across North America, five billion birds are embarking on their long migration north in search of more abundant resources, and bird enthusiasts–old and new–are poised to witness their incredible journeys.
As I came to learn, birds aren’t just nice to look at – they are essential to human survival. Our fragile ecosystem depends upon birds to pollinate plants, control pests, recycle nutrients, and distribute seeds. Pileated woodpeckers, like the one who sparked my fascination with birds, excavate tree cavities that are subsequently used for nesting and roosting by other bird species and small animals. Each species plays an important role in the complex web of life on Earth.
Most birds on the planet today are not wild, but have been domesticated for their eggs or meat, and our increasing appetite for farmed birds has become a threat to wild ones. Intensive poultry farming is currently accelerating the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) among wild and domestic birds in the US. Roughly 24 million farmed birds, including at least one million in Minnesota, have already been euthanized in an effort to contain the virus. Meanwhile, avian flu has been detected in Minnesota and 31 other states among 34 wild bird species, including waterfowl, shorebirds, and the raptors that eat them. Scientists believe infected wild birds may spread the virus to more domestic flocks as they migrate north this spring (which may in turn infect more wild birds).
High demand for meat and eggs requires intensive animal farming, which exacerbates viral disease outbreaks like avian flu. On factory farms, birds are packed indoors by the thousands, surrounded by their own waste, with no fresh air. These cramped and unsanitary conditions are especially conducive to the emergence and spread of infectious disease. According to Dr. Michael Greger, author of “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching,” “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.” As more domestic birds across the country contract the virus, the threat to wild birds grows. Our flawed food system has bound together the fate of farmed and wild birds.
In addition to the risk of disease, factory farming has an even more direct impact on wild birds by depleting their habitats and draining the resources they rely on for survival. Groundbreaking research published in 2019 revealed that North America is home to three billion fewer wild birds than in 1970 – a 30 percent population decline. Two primary drivers of this dramatic disappearance – habitat loss and climate change – are fueled by the use of birds and other animals for food. Animal products require more land, feed, water, and other resources to produce than plant-based foods. Increasing demand for meat and other animal products is precipitating the destruction of critical bird habitat to make space for feed crops and grazing.
Due to expanding animal farming, this spring’s migrating birds will face more perilous journeys than ever before. Two simple steps can make a tremendous difference: eat more plants and support efforts to phase out factory farming. Transitioning to a plant-centric food system that requires far less agricultural land and fewer natural resources could preserve wild bird habitat and curb extinctions, while eliminating the dirty and crowded conditions that spread disease. Our newfound appreciation for wild birds is a thing of wonder, but until we change the way we eat, we will continue to threaten their very survival.
The naturalist Aldo Leopold famously wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” At some point between the start of the pandemic and now, I have become one who cannot. Wild birds have enhanced my sense of connection to my community, and the looming possibility of empty skies has become heartbreakingly personal. The unexpected solution that could save wild birds–reducing the exploitation of their domestic kin–gives me hope. By extending our circle of compassion to farmed birds, we can protect all birds for future generations.
Julie Knopp is president of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis.