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State of the Birds Report

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Wetlands Restoration: A Model for Bird Conservation


Consider This:

  • Nearly one-quarter of all U.S. birds rely on freshwater wetlands, including more than 50 shorebird species, 17 long-legged waders, and 44 species of ducks, geese, and swans.

  • Wetland bird populations are well below historic levels but management and conservation measures have contributed to increases of many wetland birds, including hunted waterfowl.

  • Degradation and destruction of wetlands reduce clean water and other benefits to society and eliminate critical areas needed by wetland birds.

  • Bird-related conservation programs have contributed significantly to the restoration of wetlands. For example, “Duck Stamps” and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act have generated billions of dollars and protected nearly 30 million acres.

The State of Wetland Birds

Of 163 bird species that breed in freshwater wetlands, 24% are species of conservation concern, including 10 federally listed as endangered or threatened. Half of the remaining high-concern species are shorebirds that breed in the arctic, boreal forest, or grasslands. The wetland birds indicator, based on data for 139 species, shows a steady increase beginning in the late 1970s, coinciding with major policy shifts from draining to protecting wetlands. Dramatic increases in many wetland generalist species, as well as arctic-nesting geese and cavity-nesting ducks, contribute to this overall trend.

Although many wetland birds show troubling declines, conservation programs have protected millions of acres and contributed to thriving populations of herons, egrets, hunted waterfowl, and other birds.



Wetland Birds Indicator Wetland_Indicator_Chart.jpg


Birds in Trouble

Wood Stork by Marianne

Federally listed as endangered: Wood Stork, (Everglades) Snail Kite, (Yuma) Clapper Rail, Whooping Crane, (Mississippi) Sandhill Crane, Piping Plover, Least Tern. Threatened: Spectacled Eider, Steller’s Eider, Bald Eagle (Sonoran Desert population only).

  • Green Heron and Spotted Sandpiper are among the few wetland generalists that show long-term declines. Other declining wetland species include prairie-nesting Franklin's Gull and Black Tern, southeastern marsh specialists such as King Rail, boreal-nesting White-winged Scoters, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Rusty Blackbirds, and many arctic-nesting shorebirds.

Learn more about wetland birds found in grasslands, boreal forests, and arctic habitats.


Everglades_WetlandsHabitat.jpg More than half of our nation's original wetlands have been drained or converted to other uses. Many wetlands are within other habitats, such as grasslands, boreal forest, and arctic tundra. Photo by Kenneth V. Rosenberg.


Major threats


Excessive chemicals, nutrients, and sediments from unsustainable agriculture can disrupt the function of wetlands, dramatically reducing clean water and other environmental benefits, and eliminating critical areas needed by wetland birds.

Impacts of floods and drought on wetland birds are exacerbated by degradation from stream channelization, construction of levees, dikes, and dams, depositing of fill, and unsustainable forestry practices.

Energy and Climate Change
Rising corn prices and conversion of wetlands and adjacent grasslands for biofuel production threatens the nesting habitat of several duck species and other birds in the Prairie Pothole region.

Global climate change will degrade wetlands, affecting birds and other wildlife. Warming temperatures and more storms, droughts, and floods will cause unpredictable changes in hydrology, plant communities, and prey abundance.


Green Heron by Steve Wolfe


Widespread public education efforts and government regulations helped reverse the loss of wetlands starting in the 1970s. Continuing education about the value of wetlands and management techniques are vital for successful landowner incentive programs.

Creative policies based on incentives and regulation, such as the Wetlands Reserve Program and enforcement of regulations, have enabled private landowners to maintain agriculture and timber production while managing wetlands.
Increasingly, hunting leases, bird watching, and ecotourism are providing landowners with economic opportunities that are enhanced by management of quality wetlands.

Land purchases can be the most secure form of wetlands conservation. With more than 96 millions acres on 548 refuges, the National Wildlife Refuge System is our nation’s only public land base dedicated solely to the conservation and protection of wildlife, with a high priority for migratory birds. This network can be increased in key areas.

Small wetlands need special attention because of their vulnerability to conversion during droughts and their noteworthy value to wetlands birds.

Beyond Our Borders

The U.S. shares many wetland breeding bird populations with Canada. In addition, many waterbirds from arctic, boreal, and grassland regions of the United States migrate to Latin American and Caribbean countries for the winter. Continental programs such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan provide a solid foundation to expand vital international cooperation.

Reasons for Hope

Bald Eagle by Wilber Suiter

Our national bird, the Bald Eagle, recovered from near extinction in the lower 48 states after protection from shooting, restoration of wetlands, and banning of DDT and other harmful pesticides. Most Bald Eagle populations were removed from listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 2007, after three decades of conservation work to restore the species.

Wetlands management and restoration also have contributed to thriving populations of many wetland generalists, including American White Pelican, Double-crested and Neotropic cormorants, herons, egrets, Osprey, Sandhill Crane, Black-necked Stilt, gulls, and kingfishers.

A majority of colonial-nesting wading birds, such as egrets, herons, and White Ibis, continue to recover from populations devastated by the plume trade and market hunting in the early 20th century. Once nearly confined to rookeries in south Florida, many of these species have expanded west into Louisiana and Texas, and north along the Atlantic Coast.

See the next page for information about waterfowl.


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