Quarter of U.S. Birds in Decline, Says Audubon

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Changing Ecosystems

Gill said people should understand that the decline or loss of bird and other species occurs in relation to major ecological changes that have potentially broader implications.

Bird populations, reproductive rates, and behavior change in response to conditions that also affect the quality of life for people and other wildlife, such as habitat degradation, poor water quality, and depleted fisheries.

"The reason for identifying species on the Watchlist is not entirely altruistic," said Gill. "Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, birds are primary indicators of environmental health, and what hurts birds also hurts the people who share the same space."

To compile the report, Audubon researchers synthesized data collected by Partners in Flight, a coalition of ornithological groups; Birdlife International, a global conservation program; and Audubon's own breeding bird survey and annual Christmas bird counts.

Details on population sizes, rates of decline, and threats facing birds came from the scientific literature and bird monitoring projects involving members of the public. Observing scientific protocols developed by conservation groups, the birdwatchers provide survey data that, when combined, indicates population sizes over a broad scale.

The Audubon report is basically an alert, said Gill.

"The Watchlist is preventative medicine," he said, adding that the information should be used to allocate resources toward protecting certain species of birds before they become endangered.

The best method of bird conservation is to "keep common birds common," agreed Kenneth Rosenberg of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Audubon's Watchlist and the work done by Partners in Flight is valuable, said Rosenberg, because it promotes proactive conservation of birds that are showing signs of trouble but are not yet at the risk of extinction. "It's far cheaper and more effective to protect and sustain birds before they become endangered," he said.

With regulations on species protection directed toward the most endangered birds and other species, those that are not yet endangered but whose populations are seriously declining generally are overlooked, Rosenberg added.

Backyard Conservation

The major population decline of the cerulean warbler offers an example of the problems many bird species are facing as their habitats shrink and disappear. Today there are fewer and fewer of the forested river valleys that are the warbler's summer habitat, and, as with many other migratory species, the bird's wintering grounds in South America also are disappearing.

Yet the news isn't all bad, Gill noted.

Some species, such as the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)—widely cherished as a U.S. symbol—and the peregrine falcon (Falco pergerinus), were removed from the latest Watchlist, he noted.

Moreover, the rates of decline in bird populations vary greatly across species and regions. "Birds really do rebound when the quality of the environment improves," said Gill.

What that means, he added, is that individual actions can have a positive effect.

Doing "little things [in the backyard] can make a big difference," said Gill. Examples include planting native plant species to provide food for birds and using pesticides sparingly. Another way to help is participating in surveys of American birds.

Efforts to save declining species should exploit people's love of birds, Gill suggested.

Bird watching, he noted, has soared in popularity by an estimated 250 percent since the early 1980s; today, about 71 million Americans engage in bird watching, making it the fastest growing outdoor activity. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Americans spent $40 billion last year on activities that involved watching birds and other wildlife, up from $30 billion six years ago.

Recent Bird Stories by National Geographic News:
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National Geographic Bird Resources:
Bald Eagles: Come Back From the Brink
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Recent "Birder's Journal" Stories from Robert Winkler:
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Birder's Journal: This Warbler Is a Master of Deception Birder's Journal: Seduced by Dueling Thrushes
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Nationalgeographic.com Bird-Watching Sites:
Boston Area
Chicago Area
Florida Keys Area
Maine's Acadia National Park
Mount Rainier
New Orleans Area
New York City Area
North Carolina's Outer Banks
Philadelphia Area
Portland Area
Rocky Mountain National Park
Salt Lake City Area
San Francisco Area
Santa Fe Area
South Dakota's Black Hills
Washington's Olympic National Park
Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite National Park

From the National Geographic Store:
Guide to North American Birds
Portable Birdsong Identifier
Birder's Journal
Songbirds Puzzle

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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