The idea of conservation brings to mind urgent actions: the race to save endangered species. But even more important is the goal of keeping common species common, the conservation equivalent of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” There’s no more potent reminder of this than the Passenger Pigeon, whose populations flatlined before anybody could reverse the declines.
With that in mind, the authors of the 2014 State of the Birds report analyzed North American bird populations for evidence of sharp recent declines among species that have always been numerous. These are early warning signs—clues that a habitat may be in trouble. By turning our attention to these problems, we may be able to identify the cause and turn around the trend before a population decline becomes irreversible.
The result is Common Birds in Steep Decline, a list of 33 common species compiled by scientists from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. Long-term monitoring surveys indicate that each of these rapidly declining species has lost more than half its global population over the past four decades. This list complements the 2014 Watch List, which covers 228 species that are endangered, threatened, or at risk of becoming endangered.
List of Common Birds in Steep Decline: (Links take you to the All About Birds species guide.)
The 2014 State of the Birds report was released today in a ceremony at the steps of the Smithsonian Institution. The report takes inspiration from the story of the Passenger Pigeon: a symbol of both America’s natural bounty and its fragility. It was once the most abundant bird in North America, but it declined from billions of birds to zero in half a person’s lifetime.
The authors of the report—experts from 23 of the top bird science and conservation groups in the nation—believe that the health of bird populations foretells the health of larger ecosystems, and that efforts to conserve birds will result in a better environment for all.
They conducted the most comprehensive review of long-term trend data for U.S. birds ever assembled—and the results are both unsettling and hopeful. Bird populations are declining across several key habitats—particularly aridlands, grasslands, and forests; but strong conservation action in wetlands has paid great dividends. There’s lots to be done, but the good news is that conservation works.
What Does the State of the Birds 2014 Reveal?
Conservation Works: Grassland restoration through the Farm Bill has aided the region’s birds; wetland conservation has reversed the declines of waterfowl; coastal wetland restoration has provided resilience during major storm surges.
We Must Keep Common Birds Common: The report identifies 33 Common Birds in Steep Decline. Like the Passenger Pigeon, these are familiar birds we may take for granted now—but they have shown at least a 50 percent decline in the last half-century. Download a PDF of Common Birds in Steep Decline.
228 Species on the Watch List: The Watch List includes federally endangered or threatened species, plus species that showed signs of severe population declines in the report’s analysis of of long-term (1966–2012) population data. Download a PDF of the Watch List.
Key Habitats in Danger: In clear trouble, based on the report’s analyses, are birds of the West’s aridlands; the native forest birds of Hawaii; the seabirds of the open ocean; the grassland birds of the middle of the continent; shorebirds of our coasts.
The Data You Provide Are Priceless: The State of the Birds 2014 analyzed decades of data from the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey to measure trends for hundreds of bird species—all data provided by enthusiastic, skilled, volunteer birders like you. Nowadays we have the Cornell Lab’s eBird project to make contributing data easy anywhere, at any time. The sightings contributed to citizen-science programs like these are an irreplaceable, indispensable part of understanding our world and planning for the future. We are grateful to everyone who participates.
We Know What Works: Just a few specific actions, broadly applied, would benefit bird populations in many places. Habitat loss is the number one cause of declining populations; conservation and restoration are key. Other problems include energy development, recreation in sensitive habitats, the introduction of invasive species, and climate change.
The State of the Birds report is the product of 23 agencies and organizations, including more than 70 individuals. The project lead was Alison Vogt of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Cornell Lab participants included Ken Rosenberg, who chaired the science team; Gus Axelson, who edited the report; Ashley Dayer, who served on the communications team; Joanne Avila, who designed the report; and Stef den Ridder, a Bartels Science Illustration Intern, who painted the cover illustration.
One of the most beautiful experiences in nature may be the sight and sound of thousands or even millions of shorebirds bursting into flight, dipping and wheeling as a coordinated unit, not once colliding with each other. But with worldwide shorebird populations declining across the board, it may be a spectacle future generations get to witness all too rarely.
To celebrate the amazing migrations of shorebirds, and to raise awareness of the challenges they face, the first ever World Shorebirds Day is taking place on September 6, 2014. Participants are being asked to count shorebirds, either on their own, at scheduled events, or at specific shorebird hotspots—and to report their counts through eBird.
The majority of shorebird species can be found near shallow water and include plovers, sandpipers, stilts, avocets, oystercatchers, shanks, snipes, and woodcocks.
“It’s that group of birds which are largely found next to the shore, whether it’s beach shores or inland wetland shores, but they do occur in other habitats as well,” says Rob Clay, director of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. “Some species are grassland dependent, others are forest dependent; there are even a few species that occur in arid habitats. They may be found on the coast or at 4,000-plus meters up in the Andes.”
And they are clearly in trouble. Half the species that regularly occur in the United States and Canada are either highly endangered or of special concern, according to the U.S. and Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plans. In South America, of 34 breeding species, 32% have been identified as highly endangered or as a species of high concern, according to Clay. The new 2014 State of the Birds Report, being released September 9, includes a call for international efforts to halt the steep decline in shorebird populations. What’s happening in the Western Hemisphere is magnified in the Eastern Hemisphere where pollution and development-fueled habitat loss have put species such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper on the brink of extinction. The odds have been stacked against shorebirds for a long time.
“As a group they tend to have small global populations compared to a lot of other species,” says Ken Rosenberg in the Cornell Lab’s conservation science department. “Some of them number in just the tens of thousands instead of millions.”
The Red Knot faces many perils along its long migratory journey. Click to see a larger version of this poster on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website).
Those low numbers reflect a legacy of hunting in the last century from which some populations have never recovered. The Eskimo Curlew was hunted to extinction. Shorebird hunting in the Caribbean and northern South America continues today and this is where some of the steepest population declines are occurring.
Another reason for shorebird vulnerability stems from their spectacular long-distance migrations—some species travel from one end of the world to the other, from breeding grounds in the high Arctic to wintering grounds in Patagonia or New Zealand. They flock together at key stopping points along the way. Red Knots epitomize the vulnerability this behavior presents.
“Almost the entire eastern North America population of Red Knots stops in Delaware Bay for one week during migration,” Rosenberg says. There, the knots have historically fueled up on horseshoe crab eggs—a food source that has crashed from overfishing. “If they don’t get enough food at that spot they literally can’t make it up to their Arctic breeding grounds and that entire population can’t breed. They’re highly vulnerable because of these bottlenecks at migration stopover points where they congregate. ”
That’s why the shorebird reserve network has adopted a conservation strategy that focuses specifically on these critical stopover points. While flocking to these sites makes some shorebirds more vulnerable to population declines, Rob Clay says that same behavior can be a positive for conservation.
“If you can safeguard the critical network of sites that the birds need,” Clay says, “then you can essentially ensure the maintenance or restoration of their populations.”
Critical shorebird migration sites included in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. For a more detailed map of the network, view the WHSRN’s interactive Google map. (Image courtesy of WHSRN.)
The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network currently includes 89 sites in 13 countries, though Clay says there are probably 400 to 500 key sites throughout the Western Hemisphere. Becoming part of the network includes a voluntary commitment from landowners to take the needs of shorebirds into consideration in their management of the sites.
Restoring shorebird populations benefits humans as well, because it may preserve wetlands that act as a buffer during extreme weather, which is predicted to become more commonplace because of climate change. After an earthquake and tsunami devastated the area of Concepción, Chile, a few years ago, Clay notes that the communities least impacted were located behind the one small coastal wetland that remained in the area.
“That really underlined the value of coastal wetlands as a buffer,” says Clay. “Up until that point, the wetland had been slated for development. Those plans were stopped and the area is now, hopefully, about to become a protected area.”
Though the challenges may seem overwhelming, individuals do have a role to play in conserving shorebirds simply by reporting them to eBird.
“That’s actually one of the simplest ways that anybody who is interested in shorebirds can help,” notes Clay. “Just reporting observations through eBird enables us to build up a much better understanding of where the shorebirds are and when and what types of habitat they’re using. The house is not entirely burned down as yet but there’s a pretty significant fire raging through it. And the time to act is now before it is too late.”
What’s it like to study shorebirds? This video takes you to the Alaskan tundra for a day-in-the-life of a shorebird researcher:
Hundreds of thousands of volunteer data collectors are due for some thanks from scientists, according to a new paper that reveals the role of citizen science in studies of birds and climate change. Data collected by amateurs underpins up to 77 percent of the studies in this field, but that fact is largely invisible by the time the research appears in journals, according to a study published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
“Our paper is a chance to say thank you to the many people who are citizen scientists,” said lead author Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “These people are part of the process of creating new knowledge—and whether it’s counting birds or butterflies, gazelles or galaxies, they should know that their observations really make a difference in professional science.”
Birds make excellent subjects for citizen-science projects—the term for studies that depend on members of the public for data gathering. That’s in part because the great popularity of bird watching offers a ready pool of skilled observers. Some well-known North American projects are the Christmas Bird Count, eBird, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, as well as activities such as bird-banding stations and breeding bird atlases. But citizen science is not limited to birds—hundreds of other projects cover bugs, trees, flowers, mammals, and microbes, as well as topics like water quality, air pollution, and astronomy.
Citizen science provides scientists with continent- or globe-spanning observations, often over periods so long that they outlast the careers of individual researchers. (The Christmas Bird Count has been running continuously since 1900.) For many types of data, there’s simply no other way to collect it at such a scale than with volunteers.
So how well does that dependence on volunteers come through in scientific papers? As a springboard for their study, Cooper and her colleagues analyzed the bibliography of a recent review on the effects of climate change on migratory birds. For each of the 173 primary studies cited in the review, Cooper and her colleagues tracked down the sources of data used.
Neither the review itself nor any of the cited papers used the term “citizen science”—a term coined in 1995—and only 37 papers used the word “volunteer.” Yet between 24 percent and 77 percent of the papers supporting each claim drew primarily on volunteer data. Citizen science proved especially important for documenting the patterns and consequences of climate change, such as population declines and changes in migration timing.
Cooper says that it’s not as if scientists are downplaying the role of citizen science—in some cases, scientists use large data repositories and may be unaware that citizen science was involved. In the majority of cases, scientists simply don’t use a standardized term to refer to citizen science. The result is that the product of all that volunteer effort is invisible in the literature, despite having played an integral part in analyses.
“I’d like to see this information coming full circle. In the world today we tend to have notions about expertise, and that only professionals have it,” Cooper said, noting that this idea can keep people from feeling they have anything to contribute to the scientific process. “But people who have been doing a hobby for years have tons of expertise, and they can make a very real contribution.”
“It would be so cool for people to start to identify with the term citizen science, instead of thinking ‘I’m a bird watcher,’ or ‘I measure water quality,’” Cooper said. “People might realize they have a lot of kindred spirits out there.”
Some North American Citizen Science Projects for Bird Watchers:
eBird accepts sightings all year round and from anywhere on the globe
(Top image: Tree Swallows have been an important subject of citizen-science projects, helping to demonstrate changes in migration timing and breeding as climate has warmed. Photo by Brian Kushner via Birdshare.)