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Why falling birds put humans on alert

By David Yarnold, Special to CNN
  • Audubon President David Yarnold says thousands of falling birds alarmed Arkansans
  • He says people care about birds: their migration and nesting marks time; they're beautiful
  • Cause of kill is unknown, but birds' fragility reminds us of cost of our way of life, he says
  • Yarnold: Volunteers who tracks migrations see birds decline; humans should get the message

Editor's note: David Yarnold is the president of the National Audubon Society.

(CNN) -- In the final moments of 2010, thousands of dead birds fell from the sky over Beebe, Arkansas, frightening the town's residents and turning the world's eyes once again to birds.

Why do birds -- and their struggles -- matter so much to people? They fly, and we dream about flying. We look to birds' migratory and nesting cycles to mark the passage of time and the change of seasons. Their bright plumage and beautiful songs delight us.

When birds stop flying, an essential piece of hope falls away from people as well. "Hope is the thing with feathers," mused the great American poet Emily Dickinson more than a century ago. For her and for many of us, birds have come to represent something much larger than themselves.

Beyond the inspiration birds offer, we humans understand innately that their fate is linked with our own. Birds breathe the same air we do, they drink the same water we do, and they are part of the same food web that sustains us all. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," documented how pesticides affecting birds could affect humans, too.

Let's be clear. Investigations into the Beebe, Arkansas, incident are ongoing, and an official determination of the cause is expected later this week. However, I believe that even if -- as appears likely right now -- the incident does not immediately represent a larger threat to birds or people, it bears further reflection.

Last summer, much of the world despaired as brown pelicans, laughing gulls and dozens of other species became mired in BP's oil -- some so badly that they could no longer fly or even walk. People lost their lives and human communities were crippled and damaged, too, as we were confronted with some of the costs of our way of living.

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Dead birds fall from sky

An ever-growing body of studies confirms that many of our most familiar and beloved birds are in a state of population decline, due in large part to human activities. They're slipping into oblivion a few hundred at a time.

Helping to keep tabs on this are tens of thousands of volunteers -- we call them citizen scientists -- who are wrapping up the 111th season of Audubon's Christmas Bird Count this week. This program, the largest and longest-running of its kind in the world, is one way that people are paying attention.

Their careful observations tracked the decline and recovery of Bald Eagle populations, but also demonstrated global warming is already having a serious impact, as many bird species shifted their range north over the past 40 years, and documented the decline of imperiled species such as sage grouse

Even the federal government has begun relying on Christmas Bird Count data for the annual State of the Birds reports it puts out in cooperation with conservation organizations like Audubon.

Birds and other wildlife are sending humans a message. And the public concern about this flock of red-winged blackbirds shows that many people are paying attention. Whatever caused thousands of birds to perish in Arkansas, the warning signals are all around us.

We're watching the places where kids play and birds make nests disappear at an alarming rate. We see extreme weather events routinely now. Sea levels are rising. From our backyards to the halls of Congress, we can do what the birds can't -- we can preserve nature for creatures that fly -- and the ones that wish they could.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Yarnold.