Current Conditions

Mostly Cloudy

Kamloops News

THOMPSON: When curiosity takes wing

May 24, 2021 - 12:00 PM



The other day as I stepped outside my front door...a swallow swooped down within inches of my face. He or she - it happened in such a flash I didn’t notice - was busy building a nest under the soffit of my house...and apparently I was in the flight path between nest materials and the new home.

That near miss made me question...I wonder how many birds there are...worldwide? That brainstorm quickly revealed a thornier would you count them? Which, in quick succession, led to what bird outnumbers all others?

Curiosity - something I’ve had my entire life - can be both blessing and curse. Questions once raised, even if only to myself, are incapable of being ignored...I’m compelled to seek answers. It makes for good journalism, of course, but it can be a time-consuming pastime. My questions lead to premises that I have to prove true or not. 

More than a half century ago, I remember vividly what I could only guess might be a few hundred thousand Flamingoes taking wing in Florida’s Everglades. Like a huge cloud, they literally blocked the late afternoon was breathtaking. Today tourists in airboats an hour south of Alligator Alley might see a single Flamingo...if they’re lucky.

Likely, I wondered then as I do we know how many birds there are on Earth? I could have taken a photo and roughly extrapolated the number of Flamingoes in the air that afternoon...maybe getting within tens of thousands of the actual number. Of course, that was just one flock...the Everglades covers 1.5 million acres!

So, after checking several references - National Geographic and the three leading bird field guides by Kaufman, Sisley and Peterson - I found that our census of birds isn’t nearly as accurate as our census of humans.

Today, the world population of humans is pushing nearly 8 billion people. The year I was born - 1950 - only 2.55 billion people walked the Earth. Hmmmm...I really didn’t need another fact confirming that I am old. Those human population figures are fairly accurate...within a percentage, maybe within 80 million of the actual number of people.

It turns out the estimate for the world’s bird population is both much higher...and much less accurate. There are, according to a study published last week by the National Academy of Sciences, somewhere between 50 billion and 428 billion birds in the world.

The imprecision is understandable even if not forgivable. We wouldn’t be okay if, for example, CRA said we owe taxes between $30,000 and $2.55 million...the same multiple of nearly nine. However, like counting stars in the galaxies...or fishes in the seas...we might have to be a little more flexible. Birds - after all - are lousy at returning census the 50 billion to 428 billion is probably as accurate as we can get right now.

I’m willing to cut the bird counters - in this recent case three scientists from the University of New South Wales in Australia - some slack after considering that counting billions of animals that fly over uncertain ranges in countries that lack many scientific instruments...well, let’s just say it’s not a task most of us would undertake.

I can report that there are more chickens on Earth than any other bird - 25 billion - but that’s a domesticated bird, so maybe it shouldn’t count. However, that number does explain how there can be tens of thousands of restaurants serving up chicken wings every day...apparently supply and demand are roughly equal.

Actually, the world’s most popular bird (personalities notwithstanding) is the common house sparrow, according to this most recent study, with a population of 1.6 billion. The European starling is second with 1.3 billion, followed by 1.2 billion ring-billed gulls, 1.1 billion barn swallows, 949 million glaucous gulls and 896 million alder flycatchers.

The National Academy of Sciences study is the first to attempt counting birds by species. Curiously, we only know - another estimate - about 92 per cent of the avian species worldwide.
How do we know we’re missing eight percent?

As with most animals, there are only a few super-abundant bird species, and many more rare ones. Experts estimate that 1,180 bird species - about 12 percent of the world’s total - each have a population less than 5,000. Generally, if that number drops below 2,’s considered endangered by most ecological groups.

Both scientists and amateur bird watchers around the globe were used to estimate populations in this recent study...and the two groups were quite close in toting numbers of birds. Much to my surprise, scientists actually take photographs of birds flying and use computers to model estimates. The bird watchers around the world report what they see...apparently with a fair degree of accuracy.

The Aussies documented even rare species in their the 377 great spotted kiwi and 93 Seychelles kestrels. As for swallows like the one that nearly blind-sided me last week...not so rare...there are about 24 million of them flying around.

Using historical data and computer modelling, researchers estimate that there are about three million fewer birds flying today than in 1970. Scientists believe this latest bird population study is the start of bird counting becoming even more precise as researchers refine their methods.

Meanwhile, the findings are a good reminder of the fragility of life on Earth...whether flying, crawling, swimming or walking.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor. 

News from © iNFOnews, 2021

View Site in: Desktop | Mobile