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One third of US birds endangered

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 “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.

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