Birds Are Important Indicators of Our Nation’s Environmental Health
The United States is blessed with diverse landscapes, a wealth of natural resources, and spectacular wildlife, including more than 800 bird species. Birds are a national treasure and a heritage we share with people around the world, as billions of migratory birds follow the seasons across oceans and continents. Our passion for nature is evident: Wildlife watching generates $122 billion in economic output annually, and one in every four American adults is a bird watcher.
In the past 200 years, however, the U.S. human population has skyrocketed from about 8 million to 300 million. As we have harvested energy and food, grown industries, and built cities, we have often failed to consider the consequences to nature. During our history, we have lost a part of our natural heritage—and degraded and depleted the resources upon which our quality of life depends. We have lost more than half of our nation’s original wetlands, 98% of our tallgrass prairie, and virtually all virgin forests east of the Rockies. Since the birth of our nation, four American bird species have gone extinct, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. At least 10 more species are possibly extinct.
Birds are bellwethers of our natural and cultural health as a nation— they are indicators of the integrity of the environments that provide us with clean air and water, fertile soils, abundant wildlife, and the natural resources on which our economic development depends. In the past 40 years, major public, private, and government initiatives have made strides for conservation. Has it been enough? How are birds faring?
In an unprecedented partnership, government wildlife agencies and conservation groups have come together to produce this first comprehensive analysis of the state of our nation’s birds. The results are sobering: bird populations in many habitats are declining—a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems. Where we have been negligent too long, such as in Hawaii, we are on the verge of losing entire suites of unique and beautiful birds and native plant communities.
At the same time, we see heartening evidence that birds can respond quickly and positively to conservation action. Many waterfowl species have undergone significant increases in the past 40 years, a testament to coordinated conservation efforts in wetlands. Through focused conservation efforts, we have brought magnificent Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles back from the brink of extinction.
We ask you to join us in continuing to reverse the damage to our nation’s habitats and protect our remaining natural landscapes—the foundation upon which our precious resources, our wildlife, and the lives of our children depend. Cooperative conservation efforts among the government, conservation organizations, and ordinary citizens—private landowners, hunters, and bird watchers—really are making a difference.
It is imperative that we redouble our efforts now, before habitat loss and degradation become even more widespread, intractable, and expensive to solve. Together, we can ensure that future generations will look back at this first State of the Birds report with disbelief that their common birds could ever have been so troubled.
Overview: The State of Our Nation’s Birds
The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. An additional 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations.
Successful conservation requires information about the population status of every species to ensure the survival of endangered birds and to manage common species so they never become threatened. This report presents a new synthesis of major bird-monitoring databases, including data from thousands of citizen scientists and professional biologists. We used data from three continentwide monitoring programs to create bird population indicators for major U.S. habitats, reflecting the health of these habitats and the environmental services they provide. These habitat indicators are based on the population changes of obligate species—those that are restricted to a single habitat and are most sensitive to environmental changes. We supplemented this information with data from many other surveys that focus on species that are rare, endangered, or difficult to monitor, such as ocean birds.
The results reflect the influence of human activities and global change on our nation’s birds. Every U.S. habitat harbors birds in need of conservation. Hawaiian birds and ocean birds appear most at risk, with populations in danger of collapse if immediate conservation measures are not implemented. Bird populations in grassland and aridland habitats show the most rapid declines over the past 40 years. Birds that depend on forests are also declining.
In contrast, wetland species, wintering coastal birds, and hunted waterfowl show increasing populations during the past 40 years, reflecting a strong focus during this period on wetlands conservation and management.
Hawaiian Birds in Crisis
More than one-third of all U.S. listed bird species occur in Hawaii and 71 bird species have gone extinct since humans colonized the islands in about 300 AD. At least 10 more birds have not been seen in as long as 40 years and may be extinct. Proven conservation measures are urgently needed to avert this global tragedy, including increasing investment in protecting remaining forests, eliminating exotic predators, and captive breeding.
Declining Seabirds Signal Stressed Oceans
At least 39% of the U.S. birds restricted to ocean habitats are declining. These birds face threats from pollution, over-fishing, and warming sea temperatures caused by climate change, as well as threats at island and coastal nesting sites. Declining seabirds may be our most visible indication of an ocean ecosystem under stress.
High Concern for Coastal Shorebirds
Although some coastal birds are increasing, shorebirds that rely on coastal habitats for breeding and refueling on migration are besieged by human disturbance and dwindling food supplies. Sea level rise caused by accelerating climate change will inundate shoreline habitats. Half of all coastally migrating shorebirds have declined; for example, Red Knots have declined by an alarming 82%. Because of their relatively small and highly threatened global populations, shorebirds are of high conservation concern.
Wetland Birds Show Amazing Resilience
The upward trend for wetland birds in the U.S. is a testament to the amazing resilience of bird populations where the health of their habitat is sustained or restored. The overwhelming success of waterfowl management, coordinated continentally among Canada, the United States, and Mexico, can serve as a model for conservation in other habitats.
Grasslands and Aridlands: Degraded, Neglected
Dramatic declines in grassland and aridland birds signal alarming neglect and degradation of these habitats. Incentives for wildlife-compatible agricultural practices in grasslands and increased protection of fragile desert, sagebrush, and chaparral ecosystems are urgently needed to reverse these declines.
Forest Birds Face an Uncertain Future
Although forest birds have fared better overall than birds in other habitats, many species have suffered steep declines and remain threatened by unplanned and sprawling urban development, unsustainable logging, increased severity of wildfires, and a barrage of exotic forest pests and diseases.
Conservation Successes for Endangered and Common Birds
The will of our nation to prevent extinction and reverse environmental degradation is exemplified by the remarkable recovery of the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and other bird populations after the banning of DDT and other harmful pesticides. Targeted conservation programs for listed species remain necessary, and proactive measures involving voluntary partnerships between local, state, tribal, and federal government, nongovernmental organizations, and private citizens are needed to maintain the integrity of U.S. habitats and to keep our common birds common.
Over the last two decades, unprecedented private-public partnerships, called Joint Ventures, have been highly effective at leveraging scarce funds to conserve millions of acres of wetlands and other wildlife habitat. Also, bird conservation initiatives such as Partners in Flight, the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan have raised awareness and inspired conservation action at continental and regional scales. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative (www. nabci-us.org) provides opportunities for coordinating these vital activities.
More than 14.5 million ducks were harvested in the United States during the 2007-2008 waterfowl hunting season, according to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is up from 13.8 million ducks harvested the previous season. Hunters harvested almost 3.7 million geese, similar to the 2006-7 estimate. These figures come from a report called Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2007 and 2008 hunting seasons. The Service generates the estimates contained in this report based on surveys of selected waterfowl hunters through the cooperative State-Federal Harvest Information Program.
Almost one million duck hunters spent nearly seven million days in the field, up slightly from the previous season's nearly 6.8 million days. More than 700,000 hunters spent approximately four million days hunting geese, which is similar to the 2006-2007 season.
In the Atlantic Flyway, approximately 1.7 million ducks were harvested during the 2007-2008 season, similar to the prior season. The 936,000 geese harvested in 2007 represent an increase from the 714,000 harvested the previous season.
In the Mississippi Flyway, approximately 6.7 million ducks were harvested, almost a half million more than the previous season. An estimated 1.3 million geese were harvested, similar to the previous season.
In the Central Flyway, hunters bagged nearly 2.7 million ducks last season, an increase of 200,000 birds. The harvest of more than 900,000 geese was similar to the previous season.
In the Pacific Flyway, hunters harvested more than 3.4 million ducks and almost 500,000 geese - both estimates similar to the 2006-2007 season's harvest.
In Alaska, nearly 68,000 ducks were harvested, similar to the previous season. The goose harvest, at 6,800 birds, was slightly down from 7,500 birds in the previous season.
As has been in the past, mallards were the most prevalent duck bagged by hunters in the United States, with approximately 4.9 million birds harvested. Other dominant species this year were green-winged teal, with almost two million birds harvested, and gadwall, with nearly 1.5 million harvested. Wood ducks and blue-wing/cinnamon teal rounded out the top five hunted waterfowl with more than one million of each species harvested during the 2007-8 season.
Canada geese were the most prevalent geese harvested with almost 2.7 million birds taken. Snow geese were the second most popular goose species harvested, with an estimated 560,000 taken nationally.