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New report reveals bird losses in all habitats except wetlands

In 50 years, birds have increased overall in wetlands, a singular exception that shows the way forward for saving birds and benefiting people.

A strutting male sage grouse
A strutting male sage grouse puts on quite a show in May 2009 as it displays to attract a mate in southwest North Dakota. Sage grouse are among the species projected to lose another 50% of their remnant populations in the next 50 years if nothing changes to reverse the decline, according to a new "State of the Birds" report released Thursday, Oct. 12, 2022.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – A newly released “State of the Birds” report for the United States reveals a tale of two trends: one hopeful, one dire. Long-term trends for waterfowl show strong increases where investments in wetland conservation have improved conditions for birds and people. But data show birds in the U.S. are declining overall in every other habitat – forests, grasslands, deserts and oceans.

Published by 33 leading science and conservation organizations and agencies, the “2022 U.S. State of the Birds” report is the first look at the nation’s birds since a landmark 2019 study showed the loss of 3 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada in 50 years.

“This year’s bird report unequivocally affirms the successful model DU launched 85 years ago,” Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam said in a statement. “Waterfowl and other wetland bird species have succeeded where so many other bird populations are in dire straits, thanks to the investment of our supporters and the science-based approach of our habitat conservation work.”

Adam Putnam
Adam Putnam, CEO of Ducks Unlimited.
Contributed/Ducks Unlimited

Findings included in the report:

  • More than half of U.S. bird species are declining.
  • U.S. grassland birds are among the fastest declining with a 34% loss since 1970.
  • Waterbirds and ducks in the U.S. have increased by 18% and 34% respectively during the same period.
  • 70 newly identified "tipping point" species have each lost 50% or more of their populations in the past 50 years and are on track to lose another half in the next 50 years if nothing changes. They include beloved gems such as rufous hummingbirds, songsters such as golden-winged warblers and prairie icons such as the greater sage grouse.
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“The rapid declines in birds signal the intensifying stresses that wildlife and people alike are experiencing around the world because of habitat loss, environmental degradation and extreme climate events,” said Amanda Rodewald, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Avian Population Studies. “Taking action to bring birds back delivers a cascade of benefits that improve climate resilience and quality of life for people. When we restore forests, for example, we sequester carbon, reduce fire intensity and create habitat for plants and animals. By greening cities, we provide heat relief, increase access to recreation and create refuge for migrating birds.”

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Five data sources

The report used five sources of data, including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count, to track the health of breeding birds in habitats across the U.S.

“From grassland birds to seabirds to Hawaiian birds, we continue to see that nearly all groups of birds and types of bird habitat have declined significantly,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The one group that is seeing an increase in population size are wetland-dependent birds, including waterfowl.”

The positive trend among wetland bird species is the result of “decades of collaborative investments from hunters, landowners, state and federal agencies, and corporations,” said Karen Waldrop, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited. “This is good news not only for birds, but for the thousands of other species that rely on wetlands, and the communities that benefit from groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration and flood protection.”

The report suggests that applying that same formula in more habitats will help birds and natural resources rebound, according to a news release from DU.

“The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Federal Duck Stamp Program, grants from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and regional joint ventures partnerships are all part of a framework that has a proven track record with restoring and protecting wetland-dependent species,” said Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Now we want to use that precedent to work with our partners to restore bird populations, conserve habitat, and build a foundation for how we respond to the loss of other bird groups.”

Reversing the decline

Data show that conservation must be stepped up to reverse the biggest declines among shorebirds, down by 33% since 1970, and grassland birds, down by 34%. Recognizing the need to work at bigger, faster scales, 200 organizations from across seven sectors in Mexico, Canada, the U.S. and Indigenous Nations are collaborating on a Central Grasslands Roadmap to conserve one of North America's largest and most vital ecosystems – hundreds of million acres of grasslands.

Given widespread declines, the report emphasizes the need for proactive conservation across habitats and species.

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“What affects birds affects us, and birds are telling us they are in trouble,” said Marshall Johnson, chief conservation officer, National Audubon Society. “The State of the Birds Report underscores both the serious threats facing birds as well as opportunities to forge solutions that will benefit birds and the places they need. It also shows that what’s good for birds is good for people when it comes to addressing threats like climate change. Ensuring healthy landscapes across our forests, grasslands, wetlands and more will help protect birds and people alike by storing carbon, providing essential habitat and building more climate-resilient communities.”

The report advises that meeting the tremendous need will require a strategic combination of partnerships, incentives, science-based solutions and the will to dramatically scale up conservation efforts.

“Everyone can make a difference to help turn declines around,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy. “Everyone with a window can use simple solutions to prevent collisions. Everyone can help green their neighborhood and avoid using pesticides that harm birds. Everyone who lives in a neighborhood can bring the issues and solutions to their community and use their voice to take action.”

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