500 Most Important Bird Areas in U.S. Named

Emily Sohn
for National Geographic News
September 23, 2002
After more than six years of research, scientists have named the 500 most important bird areas in the United States. With a map already finished and a book on its way, the researchers hope their list of hotspots will help focus conservation projects where birds need them most.

"There are birds everywhere," said Gavin Shire, director of communications technology for the American Bird Conservancy in The Plains, Virginia. "Recognizing these places is the first step toward conservation and protection."

Times are tough for birds all over the world, Shire says, for a variety of reasons. Global climate change, logging, and development have chopped up critical habitats, making it harder for birds to get enough to eat or find enough space to breed. Many places that migratory birds habitually stop are rapidly disappearing. Meanwhile, domestic cats kill millions of birds every year, while others die from collisions with communication towers, toxic pesticides, or disease epidemics like the West Nile virus.

Bird deaths often warn of other environmental problems, too, Shire said. "Birds are a good indicator of the general ecological health of the planet."

Birds Have Needs Too

More than 3,500 Important Bird Areas have been designated around the world, with ongoing projects in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Ecuador, among other places. The United States effort began in 1995, when scientists at the American Bird Conservancy started scanning scientific journals and interviewing managers of parks and wildlife refuges. In total, more than 500 biologists and conservationists gave their input.

There are four ways a site can earn IBA status, and some sites fit into more than one category. More than 200 of the top 500 U.S. designations went to areas where significant populations of endangered and threatened species live, such as piping plovers and Kirtland's warblers.

Nearly half of the top 500 IBAs are prime habitats for species on the Partners in Flight Watch List, which identifies birds that scientists think will be next in line for the endangered species list, if nothing is done to protect them. Cerulean warblers and Henslow's sparrows are two examples.

Birds with small home ranges also raise red flags for the IBA-designators. "The smaller the range of the species," Shire said, "the more vulnerable it is."

Tricolored blackbirds, for example, live only in wetlands of California, with limited ranges in Oregon and Baja California. If those habitats disappear, the species will quickly follow.

Finally, the researchers look for places where migratory birds usually stop on their long journeys between seasons, such as the Delaware Bay, where hundreds of thousands of red knots and other shorebirds stop every spring to spawn and gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs before continuing their flights up north.

Many of the ABC's final 500, which have been plotted on a map with the help of the National Geographic Society, are already prime bird-watching destinations, such as Everglades National Park in Florida and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

Other sites surprised even the experts who helped create the list, including ornithologist Robert Chipley, director of the IBA program. Even though he started bird-watching when he was 14 years old, Chipley said he never would have guessed that Tennessee's Frozen Head State Park would turn out to be one of the best sites in the country for the cerulean warbler, a bird being considered for the endangered list. "This is a place I had never heard of before," he said.

With Status Comes Hope

Experts hope the IBA list will help focus hard-to-get federal funding on conservation projects where birds are most at risk. "The very fact that you've named a place an IBA gives it status," Chipley said. "You can point to one and say, 'Hey, this place is going down the drain. It's defined as one of the best places in the United States for birds. We can't let that happen.'"

Education is also an important goal: The more people know about birds, the more likely they will want to protect them. And a little bit of attention can go a long way, said Brian Braudis, who manages the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Manila, Arkansas.

Bald eagles nest in the 11,000-acre refuge. And the hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl that stop there every winter include mallards, canvasback ducks, blue-winged and green-winged teals, and wood ducks.

Even though Big Lake was named an IBA last March, people who live near the refuge have long had more interest in hunting birds than conserving them, Braudis said. So, to raise the profile of the area's birds, Braudis arranged a celebration last August. He invited a prominent congressman and five local mayors to speak. He even ordered a cake with icing to match the IBA plaque.

Pretty soon, Braudis said, people took notice. A nonprofit group formed to help protect the refuge's avian residents. Community members began volunteering time and money to build a bluebird trail. "The guy running this is a duck hunter who you never would've called a birder before," Braudis said. Educational tours and interpretive trails are in the works.

Braudis said the new IBA status was an important catalyst that sparked enthusiasm to protect the refuge and its wildlife. "That designation elevated Big Lake," Braudis said. "There's no question about it."

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National Geographic Bird Resources
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Experience the Sights and Sounds of Eagles Bird-Watching Sites
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Additional Information from Related Web Sites:

American Bird Conservancy
Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Web Site
National Audubon Society
Environmental Protection Agency: Bird Conservation

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