One hundred years after the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, the nation’s top bird scientists from conservation groups and agencies have come together again to publish the fifth State of the Birds report. This is the most comprehensive review of long-term trend data for U.S. birds ever compiled.
Yesterday morning I attended the official release of the report at the Smithsonian Castle, in Washington, D.C. Pete Marra, the head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, summed up the report by saying, “America’s report card is mixed. We may need to go to summer school.”
The report includes a “Watch List” of species in need of immediate conservation help, as well as a list of common birds in steep decline. It examines the status of birds by broad habitat, including aridlands, Eastern forests, Western forests, grasslands, coasts, wetlands, oceans, and islands.
For example, in the aridlands of the west, bird populations are declining more than anywhere else, with an overall loss of 46% since 1968. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the culprits, thanks to residential and energy development, unsustainable land use, and encroachment of non-native and invasive plant species. Scaled Quail and LeConte’s Thrasher have declined by 75%. Bendire’s Thrasher populations have decreased 85%. In the words of Dr. Marra, “It is getting close to being gone.”
In our grasslands, the story is much the same: Lark Bunting, McCown’s Longspur, Mountain Plover, and Sprague’s Pipit have all declined by 75%. The loss of wintering habitat in Chihuahua, Mexico is the likely transgressor.
Shorebirds are among the most threatened groups of North American birds. More than half of U.S. shorebirds species are on the Watch List, including beach-nesting Piping and Wilson’s plovers, prairie-nesting Mountain Plover and Long-billed Curlew, and arctic-nesting Red Knot and Hudsonian Godwit.
Eastern forest bird populations have dropped 32%, with a continued steady decline since 2009. Species that need either young forests (such as Golden-winged Warbler and Eastern Towhee) or mature deciduous forest (such as Wood Thrush and Cerulean Warbler) had the steepest declines.
As alarming as these statistics are, Hawaii has earned the title as the extinction capital of the world. All thirty-three native Hawaiian forest birds require conservation help. Twenty-three are federally endangered. Non-native predators and disease-bearing mosquitoes pose the biggest threats.
But where conservation has been enacted, there is hope.
Where partners have made a strong conservation investment, bird populations are recovering. For example, Henslow’s Sparrow (which benefits the Conservation Reserve Program) has responded positively to the many millions of grassland acres restored since 1985.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service Sage Grouse Initiative is working with more than 1,000 ranchers on privately owned lands within the range of the Greater Sage-Grouse.
Programs like the Migratory Bird Joint Ventures have conserved more than 20 million acres of habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act has led to conservation projects covering an area larger than Tennessee.
Thanks to a cooperative effort resulting in the Atlantic Shorebird Business Strategy, American Oystercatcher populations are growing for the first time in ten years.
The message of this report is clear: the threats to bird populations in the United States are very real, but conservation works. We need to not only protect those birds that are the most threatened, but strive to keep common birds common. We need strong, reliable knowledge, consistent and quality habitat, and good management to do this.
At this morning’s press conference U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe quoted a partner from a recent Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership meeting: “Where birds thrive, people prosper.”
The 2014 State of the Birds Report helps show us how to make this happen.
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