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The ʻIʻiwi, a honeycreeper, is one of dozens of Hawaiian birds in need of conservation efforts.

The ʻIʻiwi, a honeycreeper, is one of dozens of Hawaiian birds in need of conservation efforts.

Jack Jeffrey

Good news, bad news: U.S. bird reports sing both tunes

On the heels of the 100th anniversary of the demise of the passenger pigeon, organizations interested in the fate of the rest of U.S. birds have independently released two reports to draw attention to avian perils and conservation needs.

Yesterday, the Audubon Society introduced its analysis of which birds will have the most trouble finding suitable places to live as the climate warms. And today, it and 22 other conservation organizations, government agencies, and research labs put out The State of the Birds 2014 report. It "presents a very clear and easy to understand up-to-date summary of the population trends and status of the birds in the U.S.," says Stuart Butchart, a conservation scientist at BirdLife International in Cambridge, U.K. "Everyone ought to pay attention to what this report tells us."

By folding long-term monitoring data from the Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey for 588 species into computer programs along with climate change predictions, the Audubon's Birds and Climate Change Report concludes that 314 species may lose half their habitats over the next several decades. Although 188 species should be able to colonize new places, 126 will have no place else to go and 28 will lose all suitable habitat. The effort generated maps for each species showing how ranges might shift, shrink, or expand. It was designed to help conservation organizations and managers set priorities about what land and species need the most protection. 

The State of the Birds 2014: United States of America from the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative Committee takes a broader view, covering all 720 or so breeding bird species in the 50 states. It uses some of the same long-term data as the climate change report and as a "collective statement of both governmental and non-governmental organizations … [it] presents a more accurate picture" of where birds stand, says Mark Eaton, a conservation scientist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Sandy, U.K.

RSPB was the first to compile a state of the birds report, 15 years ago, in part to bring recognition to the country's dedicated volunteer bird surveyors and in part to put their tallies to good use. Since 2004, BirdLife International has periodically published a state of the world's birds. And in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, there are national-level efforts in the Philippines, Paraguay, and Nepal, among others.

The first U.S. State of the Birds report came out in 2009 and established the precedent of using birds that are confined to specific habitats as indicators of the health of those habitats: oceans, coasts, wetlands, arctic, forests, grasslands, and aridlands. "Birds are the quintessential canary in a coal mind," says Peter Marra, a co-author of the report and director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C. "They are a wonderful indicator of environmental health." Also, given all the long-term surveys, "I can’t think of any other taxa where this level of information has been compiled," he adds.  

In subsequent years, these annual reports used these data to evaluate specific impacts, such as the arrival of climate change and activities on private lands. Now, this year's report goes back to the habitat-by-habitat approach and compares the 2009 findings with the current situation.

Conservation working in some places

It stresses that conservation works, pointing out that wetlands species, such as ducks, are thriving thanks to extensive protective legislation for those regions. Although there's been a 40% loss of breeding grasslands birds since long-term monitoring began in 1968, that decline has leveled off since 1990 due to conservation, the new reports notes. Also, although forest birds are in trouble in general, the situation for species such as the golden-winged warbler and the oak titmouse is improving thanks to public-private partnerships setting aside forests. And the new report touts the recovery of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California condor, and brown pelican. A few winter shorebirds, such as the American oystercatcher, are also on the rebound. "It provides some inspiring examples of successes, showing that conservation can turn these trends around given sufficient resources and political will," Butchart says.

But on the downside, many habitats have not improved. Aridlands birds have continued to slip, with birds in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico now suffering a 46% loss since 1968. The situation with some birds that migrate along coasts seems to be improving, but other shorebirds are in big trouble.

Trouble in paradise

Also, the new report calls Hawaii the "bird extinction capital of the world," as 71 species have gone extinct there since people first arrived in 300 C.E., and 10 species have not been seen in 40 years. Habitat loss and invasive species, both predators and competing birds, are to blame. All of the state’s 33 native forest species are affected. Hawaii also hosts many seabirds, which have seen a 39% decline in 40 years.

The group also came out with a Watch List, which includes birds already classified by the U.S. government as endangered or threatened as well as other declining species with limited ranges and populations. That list builds on other such watch lists produced by other organizations, Marra says, and totals 230 species. In addition, the report notes which common birds are rapidly disappearing and also need attention. The 33 species on that list—which is akin to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of Species of Special Concern—include one of Marra's favorite childhood birds, the common nighthawk. Like the passenger pigeon, it once darkened the skies with huge flocks but now is only seen occasionally, he laments.

So in memory of the last passenger pigeon, "I'm hoping [the report] touches a chord with the public about why birds are important," Marra says. "We have most of the tools we need to tackle these problems and I don’t want to see another bird go extinct."

"More [conservation] is needed, particularly to avoid extinctions in Hawaii and other islands," Eaton agrees. Yet Ken Meyer, an ornithologist with the Avian Research and Conservation Institute in Gainesville, Florida, wonders whether the report will have the desired impact. In his experience, policymakers and legislators often ignore such reports, and he’s found that it is more effective to deal directly with landowners and the public. "You can make all the beautiful 10-page documents that you want, but you've got to get [them] out there," he says. "That's my big concern."