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State of the Birds Report

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Managing Healthy Forests is Key to the Future of Birds and Our Natural Resources


Consider This:

  • North America has a tremendous diversity of forests harboring more than 300 breeding bird species.

  • Some forest birds are doing well, giving hope for continued conservation efforts, but roughly one-third of all forest-breeding species have declined.

  • Forests are threatened by unplanned and sprawling urban development, unsustainable logging, intense wildfires following decades of fire suppression, overbrowsing by deer, and tree pests and diseases exacerbated by a changing climate.

  • Opportunities abound for forest bird management, including a balance of economically viable but sustainable forestry and grazing practices; the U.S. manages 193 million acres of National Forests.

The State of Forest Birds

Of 310 forest-breeding birds nationwide, 22% are species of conservation concern, including 11 federally listed as endangered or threatened. Roughly one-third of all forest-breeding species have declined. The overall indicator for obligate forest birds, based on 96 species with adequate data, declined by roughly 10% through 1980, then recovered slightly in recent years (see Bird Population Indicators graph in Overview). Bird population trends in forests differed across four geographic regions (see Eastern Forest, Western Forest, Boreal Forest, and Subtropical Forest).

The eastern forests indicator, based on data for 25 obligate species, declined steadily over the past 40 years, dropping by nearly 25% since 1968.

In western forests, the indicator based on 38 obligate species shows a slightly declining trend; however, monitoring data were unavailable for 40% of western forest obligates, including 10 species of conservation concern. Many western forest birds, such as Montezuma Quail, Elegant Trogon, White-headed Woodpecker, and Hermit Warbler, are at risk because of their small geographic range or small and threatened populations.

Elegant Trogon by Gary H.

The indicator for boreal forests, based on 31 of 37 obligate species with adequate data, has fluctuated greatly with a generally declining trend over the first 25 years, and then a general increase more recently. Many boreal birds are not well monitored over large parts of their range, however, reducing our confidence in this indicator.

Similarly, in subtropical forests of South Texas and Florida, monitoring data were insufficient to create a bird population indicator. Many species in these regions are known to be expanding their range northward, perhaps in response to warming temperatures.

Forest Birds Indicators



Sustainable forestry, landowner incentives for forest preservation, and urban greenspace initiatives can protect natural resources and help ensure the long-term viability of many forest birds.



The Cerulean Warbler is one of more than 40 species of colorful wood-warblers that breed in U.S. forests. They migrate thousands of miles annually to winter in the Neotropics. Many long-distance migrants are threatened by loss and degradation of forests across the hemisphere. Photo by Greg Lavaty



As many as five billion birds fly south from the boreal forest each fall, according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Many of these birds spend the winter in the United States. Photo courtesy of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society


Major Threats


Development and Disturbance

Rapid urban growth threatens forests in all regions. Development increased from 15 million to 60 million acres during 1945–2002 and is still increasing exponentially.

The loss of economic incentives for private forestry has led to the sale and subdivision of forest industry lands and a rapid rise in second-home and other ex-urban development, causing forest loss and fragmentation.

Decades of unnatural fire suppression have created fuel for more intense fires, dramatically increasing the acreage burned in recent years (e.g., 9.8 million acres burned in 2006). Historically, natural fires burned large areas of some forest types annually, but were less intense. These fires were essential for the health of forests and their wildlife.

Resource Use

The U.S. harvests 21.2 billion cubic feet of timber from forests annually. Harvest increased by 40% during 1950–1980, but has declined since 1985. More than half of all timber comes from southeastern forestlands, 87% of which are privately owned. Only a small portion of timber originates from federal lands, but important forest types such old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska remain available for logging.

Invasive Species

Nearly every important tree species is afflicted by an exotic insect pest or disease, which will likely be exacerbated by a changing climate. Mountain pine beetle has killed vast areas of western pine forests and the hemlock woolly adelgid threatens eastern hemlock with extinction within 50 years.
Unnaturally high populations of white-tailed deer have destroyed the shrubby understory of many eastern forests, contributing to declines in forest-nesting birds.

Scarlet Tanager by Gerrit Vyn


The U.S. manages 193 million acres in 155 National Forests, 80% of which are in western states. By 2008, 13% of forestlands in the western U.S, 6% in the East, and 26% in Alaska had been set aside in forest reserves. Conservation of roadless areas and additional reserves and improved management, such as sustainable forestry and grazing practices, would ensure the long-term viability of many forest birds.

Sustainable forestry practices improve the long-term health of forests. Economically viable practices on private lands and incentives for private landowners can provide a mosaic of forest ages and structure to benefit diverse birds and prevent development.

Smart growth and urban greenspace initiatives are critical for stemming the tide of suburban sprawl and preserving the integrity and connectivity of forest ecosystems. Incentive programs that enable landowners to keep their land as forest need to be expanded.

Beyond Our Borders

Half of all forest bird species migrate from breeding habitats in the U.S. and Canada to winter in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. Collaborative initiatives involving international partnerships are essential for successful conservation of these species and their habitats.

Red-shouldered Hawk
by Shane R. Conklin

Reasons for Hope

Forest-breeding raptors, such as Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Merlin, as well as tree-nesting Bald Eagle and Osprey, have responded positively to protection from shooting, banning of harmful pesticides, and abundant prey in urban areas.




See next page for information about eastern forests.


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