13.7 Million Birds Are Dying Every Day in the U.S.

A pigeon against a city landscape.

Magdiel Torres / Getty Images

In the last few weeks, a lot has been made of the mysterious mass-animal deaths that have struck in the United States and throughout the world -- and for good reason. The ominous events become the centerpiece of a discussion about what harmful human activity could be behind nature's apparent poor health: ranging from government testing and fireworks, to the usually cold weather and coincidence. But for as puzzling and disconcerting as those widely reported animal deaths are -- the truth is that they're hardly a drop in the bucket compared with what happens every day.An interesting report from the New York Times sought find out more about all those less publicized bird deaths that occur every day but are not thought of as cause for alarm -- even when human activity usually has something to do with it. Considering the figures, it's almost more curious as to why we don't see more dead birds cluttering our roadways.

Biologist Melanie Driscoll, from the National Audubon Society, estimates that a whopping 5 billion birds die every year in the United States -- equating to roughly 13.7 million birds dying every day. The causes of these deaths, of course, are varied; millions of bird die of 'natural' causes, according to a government led study, but there are plenty of factors keeping them from that demise, many of which are close to home. One report indicates that as many as 39 million birds a year in the US are killed by rural cats alone.

Human activity, however, remains the leading cause of death for birds. The New York Times article breaks down the figures:

Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly, but an unknown and probably larger number ingest the poisons and die later unseen. Orphaned chicks also go uncounted.
And then there is flying into objects, which is most likely what killed the birds in Arkansas. The government estimates that strikes against building windows alone account for anywhere from 97 million to nearly 976 million bird deaths a year. Cars kill another 60 million or so. High-tension transmission and power distribution lines are also deadly obstacles. Extrapolating from European studies, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 174 million birds die each year by flying into these wires. None of these numbers take into account the largest killer of birds in America: loss of habitat to development.

Such factors driving bird deaths remain, for the most part, unreported particularly among the mainstream media which has become so captivated by these most recent, and albeit more dramatic, mass die offs. "It is the story that the press and the public have largely missed, and it is important, and timely, given the current concern," Driscoll told the Times.

These recent large scale animal deaths, wherein thousands of birds inexplicably fall from the sky, are certainly fodder for speculation as to what form of human activity may be behind it, but in the everyday reality for conservationists, the culprit is something far more sinister than top-secret government testing -- it's systemic activities and infrastructure so commonplace that the death they cause is not discussed.

Ultimately, the public's fascination with the die-offs is rooted in the concern that all may not be right between man and nature -- and that perhaps finally the scales have been tipped irrevocably, meaning we may be next. But as the stories fade from the headlines, perhaps we'll be too enraptured in the next news cycle to even breathe a sigh of relief that the problem has 'passed', so we'll carry on.

There is indeed something troubling about those mass deaths, but whether or not human activities are responsible for a few thousand bird corpses here and there isn't really the point. 13.7 million wild birds died today in the United States and it's unmentioned because there's little doubt that we have something to do with most them.

(Oh, and that's not including the 25.6 millions of chickens and turkeys slaughtered in US factory farms today, either -- but there's no mystery about who's responsible for that.)