Audubon looks to citizens to intervene as familiar birds fall victim to changesIf rufous hummingbirds no longer flashed around our yards like tiny iridescent jet fighter planes, would we be poorer for it? Some might argue no, but they are people with spirits of bitter alkali.

Populations of these nectar-fueled little dervishes have declined by half in Washington. In North America as a whole, they are suffering as a result of the loss of forest habitat to logging and development, in both their breeding range in the Pacific Northwest and their wintering sites in Mexico, according to a recent analysis by the National Audubon Society.

It isn't just hummingbirds that are in trouble in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide. Many of the birds that brightened our childhoods with their songs and eccentric quirks are in a disheartening process of decline. "Populations of some of America's most familiar and beloved birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years, with some down as much as 80 percent," Audubon reports.

The five bird species especially hard hit in Washington are:

? Evening grosbeak populations are down 97 percent in Washington and 78 percent nationally. Declines may be due to competition with house finches, or the spread of disease through, perhaps, unsafe feeder practices. Bird feeders should be cleaned regularly and platform feeders should be avoided.

? Wintering Bonaparte's gull populations are also down by 97%. These are the smaller gulls most beginning birders recognize easily because of their black heads in spring look like Napoleon's hat. Cause of decline may be attributed to declining food sources.

? Purple finch populations have declined by 87 percent, especially in suburban areas, probably owing to competition with introduced house finches. In aggressive interactions, house finches nearly always win.

? Yellow-headed blackbirds are medium-distance migrants that breed in wetlands in semi-arid areas in British Columbia and Washington. They may be affected by farming techniques that leave few vacant strips of land or wetlands, by pollution, and introduction of exotic fishes. Yellow-headed blackbirds have declined by 72 percent in our state.

? Anyone traveling in Eastern Washington knows to listen for the western meadowlark's melodic song. However, western meadowlarks are threatened by the loss of grasslands, and their populations are, down 60 percent. Huge stretches of grasslands have been converted to agricultural row crops.

It's easy to chalk all this up to the inevitable degradations of the natural world that appear to go hand in hand with a rising human population. But the sad decline in common birds is something we have considerable power to influence, both by our day-to-day behavior and in the political sphere.

Acting individually, we can keep our cats indoors. Housecats and their feral cousins take a tremendous toll on birds, not to mention small mammals and amphibians. Even if you choose not to be concerned about birds, the fact is that indoor-outdoor cats live a small fraction as long as cats that are kept inside all the time. Feral cats can be trapped, spayed or neutered, and released.

Many local land decisions have big impacts on common birds. Preserving wetlands and wild areas - even a city lot at a time - will have a huge beneficial result for birds and other wildlife.

On a grander scale, we all must lobby national and state lawmakers to preserve migration corridors, along with nesting and wintering sites. As our climate changes, many scientists expect habitat zones to shift northward and species survival will depend on being able to find suitable habitat wherever they move.

Wild birds aren't just pretty companions or natural soundtracks for nature walks. They transport plant seeds, play roles in pollination and serve as living scientific instruments that can tell us much about the health of our shared environment.

The fact that common birds are disappearing should be a wake-up signal for us all: If they are in trouble, how long will it be before we join them?

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