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Over A Third Of North America’s Bird Species Need ‘Urgent Conservation Action’

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Thanks to a multitude of threats, over a third of the bird species in North America are “of major conservation concern,” according to a comprehensive study released Wednesday.

The report, released by the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, is the first to look at the threats facing all 1,154 migratory bird species native to North America. Taking into account population sizes and trends, extent of habitats, and severity of threats, the report found that 37 percent of migratory birds in North America qualify for the conservation watch list, “indicating species of highest conservation concern based on high vulnerability scores across multiple factors.”

Some are doing worse than others: More than half of seabirds and species that make their homes in tropical forests are on the watch list, the report found. These species face threats like deforestation, which is stripping birds and other animals of their habitats, and overfishing, which is eliminating food sources for seabirds. Meanwhile, bird species that depend on coastal, arid, and grassland habitat are “declining steeply,” while generalists — those birds who can adapt easily to a range of different environments — are doing well.

“This report is telling us what many of us have feared for years: Migratory birds face challenges that dwarf any that they have faced in the era of human dominance of planet,” Dan Ashe, director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a launch event in Ottawa Wednesday. Climate change is disrupting migration, he said, while habitat is being fragmented and destroyed. “This 2016 State of North America’s Birds report documents alarming trends,” he said.

The wood duck has been a North American conservation success story. CREDIT: shutterstock
The wood duck has been a North American conservation success story. CREDIT: shutterstock

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S.-Canada Migratory Bird Treaty, an agreement that led to rules in both countries protecting migratory birds from hunting and trafficking. The United States signed a similar treaty with Mexico in 1936, and later entered into agreements with Japan and Russia.

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In the last 100 years, birds have seen some successes, officials and bird experts said Wednesday. Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, noted the wood duck, whose North American populations dropped in the 19th Century due to habitat destruction and hunting, but have rebounded in the last century — a comeback attributed largely to the Migratory Bird Treaty, as well as to U.S. efforts to construct nest boxes specially geared towards the ducks, which proved extremely beneficial for population numbers. Whooping Cranes, whose numbers plummeted to the double digits in the 1940s, have also rebounded slightly, thanks to the treaty and subsequent conservation efforts, and the Canadian-U.S. captive breeding program. The whooping crane remains endangered, however.

These Maps Could Help Save Birds Threatened By Climate ChangeClimate by CREDIT: wikimedia commons It all started with a feather. Or, to be more accurate, about 180,000 feathers…thinkprogress.orgBirds face myriad challenges today, however. Climate change is causing major problems for migration, food availability, and habitat: A 2014 study from the Audubon Society found that almost half of North American bird species are threatened by climate change. One hundred and twenty six of North America’s bird species will lose more than half of their current ranges by 2050, as temperatures rise and change the habitat conditions these birds have adapted to over centuries. Some birds will be able to move farther north or farther up in elevation to find more suitable habitats, but others won’t be so lucky. Energy development is also creating concerns for birds: Coal, oil, and gas development are hugely life-threatening for birds.

More work needs to be done to protect birds from these and other threats, experts said at a launch event at the Canadian embassy Wednesday. And the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty is the perfect time to commit to these efforts. Conservation has been key in helping bird species rebound over the last century, the report notes, and work by federal governments and local private and nonprofit groups has been crucial in creating protected areas. There are “tens of millions of people who love birds,” the report states — and if the passion of those people is harnessed, real milestones in conservation could be reached.

“Where we have invested in conservation and healthy habitats, birds are doing well,” Ashe said. “Where birds thrive, people prosper, because healthy birds mean healthy forests, wetlands, grasslands, and oceans.”