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State of the Birds Report

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Arctic & Alpine

Key Nesting Areas are Threatened by Global Warming and Energy Development


Consider This:

  • Millions of birds travel from around the globe to the arctic each year. Eighty-five bird species rely on the arctic’s long summer days and abundant insect prey to raise their young.

  • Because the arctic is vast and remote, data are lacking for many species. Some birds, such as geese and gulls, seem to be faring well, but many shorebirds and landbirds are showing worrisome declines.

  • Disturbance to tundra from energy exploration and changes caused by global warming are affecting the birds’ food base and transforming arctic habitats. Arctic-breeding birds also face numerous threats during extensive spring and fall migrations.

  • Reducing emissions is critical to slow global climate change, which is already affecting the arctic. Energy development and transportation plans should incorporate the conservation needs of birds.

The State of Arctic and Alpine Birds

Of the 85 species that breed in arctic and alpine regions, 38% are of conservation concern, including 3 federally listed as endangered or threatened. The arctic and alpine indicator, based on 27 obligate species, has increased steadily over the past 40 years. Dramatic increases in four arctic-nesting geese contribute to this overall trend. Because of the remoteness of these regions, however, the indicator represents only 46% of obligate arctic and alpine species. A group of 10 landbird species shows a declining trend over the same period, with steepest declines evident in alpine-nesting rosy-finches. Some sea ducks and many shorebirds are also declining; two-thirds of all arctic-nesting shorebirds are species of conservation concern.

The future of arctic habitats and birds depends on our ability to curb global climate change and to explore energy resources with minimal impact to wildlife.



Arctic and Alpine Bird Indicator ArcticAlpine_Indicators_Chart.jpg
ADD N=39 species or species groups to figure.


Arctic-Nesting Geese


Birds in Trouble

Ivory Gull by Gerrit Vyn
Federally listed as endangered: Eskimo Curlew. Threatened: Spectacled Eider, Steller’s Eider.
  • In arctic Canada, the Ivory Gull has declined dramatically in the last decade. This enigmatic and beautiful species depends on arctic sea ice for feeding, and is especially vulnerable to global warming.

  • Arctic-breeding ducks that winter in marine waters have declined. The nonbreeding distribution of threatened Spectacled Eider was unknown until recent satellite imagery revealed important concentrations in arctic waters off Alaska.

  • At least 38% of arctic-nesting shorebirds are decreasing and population trends are unknown for 25%. A monitoring program to assess shorebird populations is critically needed. 



Alaska's arctic coastal plain includes some of the world's most productive wetlands for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. The arctic region also includes drier northern uplands and treeless alpine areas on mountaintops. Photo by Gerrit Vyn


Major Threats

Climate Change

Warming temperatures are more extreme at the poles than in other places on earth. Thawing permafrost in the southern arctic is lowering the water table and drying out coastal tundra supporting the highest densities of breeding shorebirds and waterfowl.

Snowy Owl by Gerrit Vyn

Warming temperatures may cause a mismatch between the timing of nesting and availability of food. Melting sea ice cover will affect seabirds, such as Ivory Gull, by causing shifts in their marine food resources. Changes to vegetation and snowpack could affect lemmings, important prey for Snowy Owls and other birds.


Oil exploration and production threaten major areas of great importance to arctic-breeding birds. Arctic warming will make it easier to develop offshore energy facilities and to transport products, increasing the risk of fuel spills that kill or harm birds.

Development and Disturbance

Predators that thrive near human development, such as arctic foxes and gulls, prey on the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds. Predators introduced to islands can devastate bird populations.



Long-tailed Jaeger by Gerrit Vyn


Reducing emissions is the only direct way to slow effects of global climate change. Better monitoring is needed to understand the effects of climate change on arctic wildlife.

Energy and commercial development plans should avoid key breeding and staging areas, minimize effects on breeding birds.

A system of protected areas in productive regions of the arctic is needed to ensure that birds have areas to use as conditions change in the arctic.

Management actions continue to be needed to control the overpopulation of geese that negatively affect the habitat for other species such as shorebirds.

As arctic birds respond to a changing climate, increased monitoring efforts will be required in areas that are difficult to access, to determine population redistribution and impacts, and to develop conservation strategies.

Beyond Our Borders

Most arctic and alpine breeding birds have large populations in Canada, and some also inhabit arctic Europe and Asia. Birds that breed in the arctic may winter in habitats from South America to southern Canada, so protection of international wintering and migratory areas is essential. Of 51 shorebird species that breed in northern North America, substantial populations of 40 species (78%) winter in Latin America, Asia, Australia, Polynesia, and Europe. 

Buff-bellied Sandpiper
by Gerrit Vyn

Reason for Hope

Oil and gas leasing has been deferred for 10 years around Alaska's Teshekpuk Lake, which supports high densities of breeding shorebirds and large numbers of molting geese.





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