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State of the Birds Report

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Private forests provide 92% of our nation's timber and maintain large contiguous blocks of habitat for interior forest birds, such as Wood Thrush. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar.

The State of our Nation’s Birds on Private Lands

This fourth State of the Birds report highlights the enormous contributions private landowners make to bird and habitat conservation, and opportunities for increased contributions. Roughly 60% of land area in the United States (1.43 billion acres) is privately owned by millions of individuals, families, organizations, and corporations, including 2 million ranchers and farmers and about 10 million woodland owners. More than 100 species have 50% or more of their U.S. breeding distribution on private lands.

Birds are important indicators of the health of our environment. To assess bird populations and conservation opportunities on private lands across the nation, we combined the latest eBird distribution data with land ownership data from the Protected Areas Database of the U.S. As in past reports, we focused on species dependent on a single primary habitat, or habitat obligates.

Our results emphasize the high dependence on private lands among grassland,
wetland, and eastern forest birds, with important conservation opportunities existing in all habitats. Many conservation programs available to private landowners offer win-win opportunities to implement land management practices that benefit birds and landowners. The success stories highlighted in this report demonstrate that voluntary private landowner efforts can yield real and meaningful bird conservation results.

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Percentage of primary habitats on private, public, and tribal lands in the lower 48 states, Alaska, Hawai`i, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Wetlands are not depicted because of insufficient data.


Working Lands Sustain People and Birds

Many privately owned working lands that produce food, timber, and other resources for society also provide valuable habitat for birds. Sustainable grazing systems yield better food resources for livestock over the long term, as well as healthier habitats for grassland and aridland birds. Ricelands can provide important wintering habitat for waterbirds. Sustainable working lands can meet the economic bottom line while providing habitat for birds and cleaner water, cleaner air, and improved human health for communities.

Private Protected Lands Have Great Conservation Importance

About 2% of private lands are formally protected, either owned or under easement with conservation as a primary land management objective. Though small in proportion, these 24 million acres protected by land trusts and private conservation groups provide a network of private protected lands nearly as large as the entire National Park Service system in the lower 48 states. Private protected lands range from small urban greenspaces to vast easements on working timberlands that provide wildlife habitat and places for outdoor recreation.

Wetlands Restoration Key to Waterfowl Production

More than half our nation’s historic wetland habitat base of 220 million
acres has been lost. And private landowners hold the key to wetlands restoration, as three-quarters of wetlands are on private land. Funding from Farm Bill programs, Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act have restored millions of acres of private wetlands. In the Prairie Pothole Region, lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program have yielded a net increase of 2 million waterfowl per year in the Dakotas and Montana.

Grassland Birds Benefit Most from Private Lands Programs

Privately owned grasslands are vital to 29 breeding obligate grassland bird species, with 82% of their distributions occurring on private land. Because most grasslands today are embedded within working agricultural landscapes, much of the important conservation of grassland habitat in the U.S. has been accomplished through programs under the Farm Bill. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program has reestablished natural habitat on about 27 million acres of environmentally sensitive lands with a history of growing crops, spurring regional rebounds of grassland bird species such as the Henslow's Sparrow.

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In Illinois, regional spring counts of Henslow's Sparrows are now about 25 times greater than 30 years ago, prior to the Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program. Henslow's Sparrow by Chris Wood. Graphic courtesy of James Herkert. 


Western Ranchers Key to Aridlands Conservation Success

More than 75% of aridland bird species are declining, and private lands host 40% of aridland bird distributions during the breeding season. Ranchers are implementing sustainable grazing systems and improving bird habitat on more than 2 million acres of ranchlands in 11 Western states. Though only 1% of private aridlands are considered protected, these parcels support disproportionately high aridland bird distributions. A conservation easement on the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch in California directly protects 18 species of aridland birds.

Forest Birds Depend on Working Private Timberlands

Private forests contain more than 40% of the U.S. distribution of 152 forest bird
species. Eastern and subtropical forest birds are particularly dependent on private
forests, which often contain young woodlands that are important habitat for steeply declining, disturbance-dependent forest birds. Ultimately, economic factors affect many landowner decisions to maintain standing forests or sell for development. Conservation easements and strong timber markets can provide incentives for private forest owners to maintain working forests.

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Bird watching and hunting of game birds are two of the most popular forms of wildlife recreation, which contributes $145 billion to the U.S. economy annually. Northern Pintail by Gerrit Vyn. 


Coastal and Island Bird Populations Rely on Private Lands

Coastal habitats (which are 83% privately owned) host 25% of all bird species
in North America at some point of the year; most beach-nesting bird species
are of conservation concern. Similarly, private lands are important bird habitat on islands, with about 50% of land in Hawai'i, 92% in Puerto Rico, and 88% in the U.S. Virgin Islands under private ownership. In both coastal and island areas, public–private conservation partnerships on private lands are vital to sustaining some of our nation's most threatened birds.

Private Lands Conservation Needs More Support

As society requires more production (food, timber, energy) from private
lands, conservation strategies compatible with working lands will become
even more important for sustaining bird populations. A suite of strong programs,
policies, and partnerships must be supported and expanded across our nation's varied landscapes, so landowners are empowered to choose conservation tools that fit best and serve everyone's best interest—landowners, fellow citizens, and birds.

 

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