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State of the Birds Report

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Urban Birds

Habitat for Birds and People


American Robins can thrive in
many habitats, including urban
yards and parks. Photo by Gregg

Although bird communities in urban environments are often dominated by a few exotic and ubiquitous species such as Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows, a surprising number of native birds have adapted to life around humans.

American Robins can thrive in many habitats, including lawns with abundant earthworms. California Quail and Abert’s Towhees find suburban plantings a suitable substitute for native aridland habitats. Gulls, vultures, and crows seek abundant food at garbage dumps and along roadsides. Hummingbirds, chickadees, sparrows, finches, woodpeckers, and other birds take advantage of bird feeders. Even hawks and owls find increasingly safe nesting sites and abundant prey in our towns and cities.

The urban/suburban indicator, based on data for 114 native bird species, shows a steady, strong increase during the past 40 years, driven primarily by a small number of highly successful species such as Wild Turkey, Double-crested Cormorant, vultures, gulls, doves, House Finch, and Great-tailed Grackle. This indicator may represent a sensitive “first alert” to environmental changes from urban and suburban development.


Urban Birds Indicator


In general, urban-adapted species from eastern forests, especially permanent residents, have shown stable or increasing populations, whereas migratory birds, such as Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, and Wood Thrush, show the same declining trends as many eastern forest obligates. This suggests that birds living in urban habitats year-round benefit from higher overwinter survival. In the West, a majority of common urban/suburban species are declining, especially birds native to southwestern aridlands and Pacific Coast forests.


Creating greenspace for birds in cities can help adaptable urban birds as well as migrants stopping over during their long journeys.


The wide variety of native birds that thrive in urban areas underscores the importance of these artificial habitats to the survival of many bird populations. Creating greenspace in urban environments, landscaping with native plants in backyards and parks, adopting architecture and lighting systems that reduce collisions, and keeping pets indoors will provide the greatest benefit to breeding birds and migrants seeking safe places to rest and find food during their spectacular journeys.


Exotic Bird Species


Introduced to the Bahamas in the
1970s, Eurasian Collared-Doves have
spread to Florida and across the United
States. Photo by Vicki Lackey

The most common birds in nearly every urban environment are exotic species introduced from other parts of the world. Exotic species also occur in most natural habitats in North America and many have significant negative effects on native birds, other wildlife, and humans. European Starlings can damage seed and fruit crops and compete with native birds for nest cavities. Mute Swans, introduced from Eurasia in the 19th century, have displaced ducks and geese from wetlands and have overgrazed aquatic vegetation. Other exotic birds have positive economic impacts, such as Ring-necked Pheasant, a popular species with hunters.

Of the 17 exotic species considered in this report, some have been established for more than a century and now occur across the continent. These birds, including Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow, show stable or declining trends over the past 40 years. In contrast, populations of some recently introduced species are growing, including Eurasian Collared-Doves, whose abundance and distribution have increased exponentially since they colonized Florida from the Bahamas in the 1970s.

The impacts of exotic species on the well-being of humans and our native flora and fauna are not well studied. Exotic birds merit closer monitoring, and careful vigilance will be needed to protect against negative impacts to our native birds.



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