There are 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970. Plus: What to read and watch this weekend
The Daily

It’s Friday, September 20. In today’s issue: The Birds.

Today’s Big Idea

North America faces a real-life bird horror story

If the pigeons disappeared from your local park, would you notice? What if the neighborhood finch stopped coming to the feeder? The starling no longer perched on the power line?

Birds are disappearing, according to a startling new report. The total North American avian population has decreased by an estimated 29 percent over the past half century. Today, there are 3 billion fewer birds than there were in 1970.

It’s not just a case of rare birds getting rarer, either: Hard-hit species include staples such as swallows, sparrows, and starlings. 90 percent of the losses came from 12 bird families. Losing birds means losing their functions as insect eaters, pollen carriers, and more.

Researchers plan to investigate what’s behind the drop, but typically speaking, the condition of their habitats plays a big role. There are also the more mundane (and often preventable) threats, like running into windows and being killed by cats.

“It’s as if all birds are canaries, and the entire world their coal mine,” reports Ed Yong.

From Our Avian Archives

This Friday, we’re taking you on yet another animal deep dive, this time on our feathered friends. The Atlantic has been bird-watching for more than 150 years, but here are some recent highlights from our coverage of tweeters (the good kind):

Some birds are more popular than others.

Earlier this year, scientists looked at data from Google and the bird-watching database eBird and ranked all 621 species by popularity, with hopes of boosting the profiles of the birds at the bottom of the list. The top 10 was dominated by eagles and owls, and in last place was a grey-and-yellow Texas bird called the Couch's kingbird.

Eagles will attack drones.

One mining company in Australia claimed $70,000's worth of damage thanks to the species. Other birds, like geese and hawks, have also been caught feuding with their new mechanical sky companions. Drone designers may need to consider disguising the machines as birds to avoid future attacks.

Crows are pretty sophisticated.

For small animals, they’ve got unusually large brains. Crows can use tools and recognize individual human faces. In Japan, crows have even been observed using cars as a sort of nutcracker, by dropping walnuts in traffic and then scooping up the remains during a red light.

One viral parrot’s penchant for dance amazed researchers …   

… who determined that, yes, his movements qualified as proper dancing, not just inadvertent bopping. “Snowball’s style is like any human who would go out regularly to a nightclub,” a neuroscientist told Yong.

Get Caught Up

Climate Strike

Activists, including many young students, launched protests in cities around the world.

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a prominent face of the climate movement, is right to be angry with adult inaction, argues Franklin Foer.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempts to weather his blackface scandal.

In recent years, Canada has been presented as a progressive analog to the U.S., but it has a “surprisingly long and deep history with blackface,” reports David A. Graham.

YouWork, WeWork, We All Work

The office-sharing company postponed its IPO.

This comes after WeWork’s alleged value dropped from $47 billion to $20 billion in just a few weeks. “When these companies come to market to sell trillion-dollar dreams with billion-dollar loss statements, it is right and good to laugh," argues Derek Thompson.  

Threat Assessment

The Department of Homeland Security released a new counterterrorism strategy, finally with an eye toward the extreme right.

The strategy document, first obtained by The Atlantic, is an “acknowledgment that, nearly 20 years after 9/11, the new terrorist threat comes largely from within,” Kathy Gilsinan writes.

From Our Critics


TV and Film


Weekend Read

The evolution of evolution in schools is convoluted.

Two decades ago, Olga Khazan was a high-school student at a Texas public school, learning the basics of almost every biological process, but nothing about evolution:

I didn’t have many other opportunities to learn about humanity’s origin. The pastors at the evangelical youth group I attended—outside of school—told me it’s possible that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time. We can’t know for sure, they said, because carbon dating is not to be trusted.

My experience was far from unusual. While only 13 percent of teachers said they advocate creationism or intelligent design in the classroom, based on a survey of 926 public-high-school biology teachers done in 2007, the most recent data available, the majority do not explicitly advocate either creationism or evolutionary biology.

→ Read the rest

The Atlantic Crossword

1-Down, nine letters: Time to hire a babysitter, perhaps

Try your hand at our daily mini crossword (available on our site here), which gets more challenging through the week.

→ Challenge your friends, or try to beat your own solving time.

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