Ken Salazar, the nation’s new Secretary of the Interior, today released the first comprehensive report on bird populations in the United States. The findings are not encouraging: nearly one third of United States’ 800 bird species are endangered with even once common species showing precipitous declines. Habitat loss and invasive species are blamed as the largest contributors to bird declines.
“Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems,” Salazar said. “From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells. We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”
Tufted puffin in Alaska. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The report is not all bad news: there are a number of examples of habitat restoration and active conservation reversing declines of some species, especially waterfowl. Wetland birds such as pelicans, herons, egrets, ospreys, and ducks have shown significant increases.
“These results emphasize that investment in wetlands conservation has paid huge dividends,” said Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Despite the success stories, the overall trend is a nation-wide decline in birds. Even once abundant birds like the northern bobwhite and the marbled murrelet have declined significantly. The report found that in the past 40 years birds dependent on US oceans have declined 39 percent, grassland birds have fallen 40 percent, and birds in aridlands are down 30 percent.
“While some bird species are holding their own, many once common species are declining sharply in population. Habitat availability and quality is the key to healthy, thriving bird populations,” said Dave Mehlman of The Nature Conservancy.
Of all the US States, Hawaii is facing the most extreme crisis in bird populations. Island birds across the world have gone extinct in startling numbers, and Hawaii is no exception. Out of 13 bird species that are considered possibly extinct in the US, nine of them are from Hawaii.
“Habitats such as those in Hawaii are on the verge of losing entire suites of unique bird species,” said Dr. David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy’s Vice President for Conservation Programs. “In addition to habitat loss, birds also face many other man-made threats such as pesticides, predation by cats, and collisions with windows, towers and buildings. By solving these challenges we can preserve a growing economic engine – the popular pastime of birdwatching that involves millions of Americans – and improve our quality of life.”
The US is not unique in its bird declines. Studies have shown bird populations falling worldwide. In a July 2008 interview with renowned bird expert Dr. Cagan H. Sekercioglu, he told Mongabay.com: “I estimate that about 15% of world’s 10,000 bird species will go extinct or be committed to extinction by 2100 with business as usual. Keep in mind that birds are among the least threatened of any major group of organisms (e.g. plants, mammals, amphibians, mollusks). Unfortunately, things are getting worse, so this number is likely to be higher, as many as 2 out of 5 bird species.”
Surveys of birds used in the US report were conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, including the annual Breeding Bird Survey, and the volunteers through programs like the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
Seeking out the world’s rarest and most endangered birds
For an evolutionary biologist there is no conservation group whose work is more exciting than EDGE, a program developed by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Unique in the conservation world, EDGE chooses the species to focus on based on a combination of their threat of extinction and evolutionary distinctness. Katrina Fellerman, an evolutionary biologist herself and the EDGE birds’ coordinator, describes the organization as one that focuses on species, which “to put it bluntly, if lost, there would be nothing like them left in the world today”. Explaining further Fellerman says “We use evolutionary distinctiveness (ED) as a species-specific measure of the relative evolutionary value of species – it is a way of apportioning conservation value according to a species’ phylogenetic position. Species with few or no close relatives on the ‘tree of life’ have the highest ED scores.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program restores bird habitat on farms and ranches
Matt Filsinger is driving his white pickup headed northeast from Sterling to look at two of his projects. This self-described introvert speaks enthusiastically about his job. “Ducks, ducks, ducks – that’s what I love!” says Filsinger, grinning broadly. Filsinger is a wildlife biologist with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He works with private landowners to set aside land and create attractive habitat for imperiled species. Specifically, he designs wetlands to attract waterfowl. Partners for Fish and Wildlife is a successful program that has been around since 1987. Landowners, including farmers and ranchers, form partnerships with the program because they reap a variety of benefits from it. Nonprofit organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Audubon and the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory are also partners. Collaboration between the federal government and private landowners is essential to preserving habitat and species, as 73 percent of the country’s land is privately owned, and most wildlife lives on that land.
The end of migrations: wildlife’s greatest spectacle is critically endangered
If we could turn back the clock about 200 years, one could watch as millions of whales swam along their migration routes. Around 150 years ago, one could witness bison filling the vast America prairie or a billion passenger pigeons blotting out the sky for days. Only a few decades back and a million saiga antelope could be seen crossing the plains of Asia.
Birds face higher risk of extinction than conventionally thought
Birds may face higher risk of extinction than conventionally thought, says a bird ecology and conservation expert from Stanford University. Dr. Cagan H. Sekercioglu, a senior research scientist at Stanford and head of the world’s largest tropical bird radio tracking project, estimates that 15 percent of world’s 10,000 bird species will go extinct or be committed to extinction by 2100 if necessary conservation measures are not taken. While birds are one of the least threatened of any major group of organisms, Sekercioglu believes that worst-case climate change, habitat loss, and other factors could conspire to double this proportion by the end of the century. As dire as this sounds, Sekercioglu says that many threatened birds are rarer than we think and nearly 80 percent of land birds predicted to go extinct from climate change are not currently considered threatened with extinction, suggesting that species loss may be far worse than previously imagined. At particular risk are marine species and specialists in mountain habitats.
Mercury from coal-burning hurts the common loon
A long-term study by the Wildlife conservation Society, the BioDiversity Research Institute, and other organizations has found and confirmed that environmental mercury–much of which comes from human-generated emissions–is impacting both the health and reproductive success of common loons in the Northeast.