MINOT, N.D. — The melodious song of the state bird, once common across all of North Dakota, is today seldom heard. The Western meadowlark is one of many species of songbirds whose numbers are in steep decline.
"It's really upsetting that meadowlarks are gone. So too are many birds really unique to our prairie, but most of our prairie is gone," said Sherry Leslie, Minot, a longtime bird watcher.
"I hear people say they miss the meadowlark. It's a sound you don't hear anymore," said Leslie.
Ron Martin of Minot, widely recognized as a top birder in the region, has participated in many bird surveys for many years and has spent thousands of hours observing all species of birds. Like others, he has witnessed a dramatic decline in bird numbers.
"Honestly, I'm afraid it's going to get worse. I'm not optimistic," said Martin. "Meadowlarks have declined a lot. They really have. The breeding bird survey bears that out."
It's not just meadowlarks and not just in North Dakota. Nationally, estimates are that bird numbers have declined in North America by 25% since 1970, perhaps by as many as 3 billion birds.
"I once thought nothing could happen to horned larks," said Martin. "Even they have declined. That's amazing. It's not just here. The numbers that people catch at banding stations over the years have declined. It's pretty obvious there's a lot fewer birds than there used to be."
Bird watchers from all over the continent used to have North Dakota on their bucket list, hoping to check off unique grassland birds from their lists. For the past several years birds like the Baird's sparrow and Sprague's pipit have become all but impossible to find.
"Numbers don't lie," said Martin, referring to bird survey data. "Some birds are declining pretty precipitously, particularly the grassland birds. North Dakota's landscape is much different than it used to be, very fragmented."
Where prairie grassland can be found, certain species of grassland birds can be found too. However, even where the habitat is better suited for certain birds, their numbers are less than what could be expected a few short years ago. Birders accustomed to identifying birds by the sound of their calls are often disappointed.
"It's dead silence," remarked Leslie.
The J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Upham boasts a variety of habitat suitable for waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland species. It has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area and is a regional site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. It is becoming a sort of oasis for birds and birdwatchers.
"We have large blocks of grasslands and wetlands for virtually all life stages of birds," explained Durbian. "We help combat that general trend of declining bird species on the Northern Great Plains. We recognize the decline in grassland birds as a most important priority and focal area for this region, for sure."
While numbers of tree swallows, finches, chickadees, siskins and juncos are among the songbirds in decline, so too are insects. One of the reasons why, say many, is the use of pesticides.
"There's a decline in the number of insects all over the world," said Martin. "Less insects means less birds. That's pretty fundamental science."
"We love nature and the outdoors," added Leslie. "When you look at the whole total picture of it you realize it's drastic and we're very upset about it."
The American Bird Conservancy says birds signal a broader crises in the natural world, citing declining amphibian numbers and loss of other wildlife species. Loss of habitat and fragmented habitat, says the ABC, is the biggest driver of bird declines.
Grassland birds, those found throughout North Dakota, have been the hardest hit with an estimated reduction of 53% since 1970, a figure the ABC places at more than 720 million birds.