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State of the Birds Report

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Marsh Birds

Secretive Marsh Birds Require Closer Monitoring


Snail Kite by Arthur Nelson

Thirty-three wetland bird species, including ducks, grebes, bitterns, and rails, depend on emergent vegetation in freshwater marshes for breeding. Many widespread marsh-nesting birds have shown stable or increasing populations over the past 40 years, but marsh specialists in the Midwest and Southeast have suffered declines.


The State of Marshland Birds

Of the 33 obligate marsh species, 21% are species of conservation concern, including the federally endangered Snail Kite and freshwater races of Clapper Rail. Other birds of high concern include Yellow Rail, Black Rail, and King Rail. For 31 species with adequate data, the marsh bird indicator shows a steady decline until about 1990, followed by wide fluctuations over the last two decades, perhaps reflecting precipitation patterns. Because many marsh birds are notoriously difficult to detect, the indicator may not accurately reflect the status of these populations.


Marsh Birds Indicator 


Birds in Trouble

Federally listed as endangered: Snail Kite


  • Marsh-nesting birds of Midwest prairies, such as Horned, Eared, and Clark’s Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, Franklin’s Gull, Clapper Rail, and Black Tern have shown population declines that are probably linked to loss and degradation of wetlands.
  • Several southeastern marsh specialists, notably King Rail and Purple Gallinule, also have experienced steep declines. Migratory populations of King Rail are listed as endangered or threatened by most states within its northern range.


Marshes respond quickly to management and restoration efforts, and even small marshes can support large numbers of birds.

Reasons for Hope

Common Moorhen
by Clark Rushing

Widespread marsh species, such as Pied-billed Grebe, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Common Moorhen can take advantage of small or ephemeral wetlands and have maintained stable range-wide populations over the past 40 years.

Everglades National Park protects the largest freshwater wetland in the United States; recent efforts to restore the greater Everglades ecosystem represent one of the largest conservation initiatives in U.S. history. Although populations of many wading birds remain well below historic estimates in the Everglades, several species, such as White Ibis, have benefited from the conservation effort there. The endangered Florida population of Snail Kite (the “Everglades Kite”) has responded well to conservation efforts, reaching a population of 685 individuals in 2008.

Marshes respond quickly to management and restoration efforts, and small but productive marshes can support very large numbers of birds. Wetland restoration projects, such as Wakodahatchee in Florida and Sweetwater Wetlands in Arizona, are a mecca for waterbirds, as well as for bird watchers and wildlife photographers.



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