Bird Declines Are Reaching a Tipping Point

Sounding an Alarm About Steep Population Losses

In 2019, a study of 529 bird species with adequate long-term data for analysis (Science, Rosenberg et al.) found that 303 species in North America were declining—more than half of the bird species studied.

Now scientists with the Road to Recovery initiative have issued an alert for 90 declining bird species—birds that are not yet federally listed as threatened or endangered, but that have lost half or more of their breeding population since 1970. The scientists further identified a subset of 70 Tipping Point species that could lose another half or more of their populations in the next 50 years, based on recent trajectories and expert assessments.

These Tipping Point species are high priorities for science and conservation because of their high vulnerability to extinction, high urgency, and steep population declines where known. All are included on the Birds of Conservation Concern List of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or state lists of Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

The Next Set of Species Plummeting Toward Endangered Status

a graph showing steep declines in 70 tipping point species, red line, since 1970

Of the 1,093 bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 89 birds have received additional protections as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to prevent their extinction.

The Tipping Point species represent another 70 birds that could be next to face threatened or endangered status. Cumulatively, the Tipping Point species that have sufficient data for monitoring have lost more than two-thirds of their populations in the past 50 years.

Tipping Point species come from varied habitats, but they all have the same urgency—immediate science and conservation actions are needed to turn around declines.

On-Alert and Tipping Point Species

Ninety bird species lost 50% or more of their populations during 1970–2019. Seventy of these species are at a Tipping Point: on a trajectory to lose another 50% of their populations in the next 50 years (39 species), or already have perilously small populations and continue to face high threats, but lack sufficient monitoring data (31 species, indicated with an asterisk).

Tipping Point Species

These 70 species are on a trajectory to lose another 50% of their remnant populations in the next 50 years if nothing changes. Tap or click the links to view species accounts in Birds of the World.

View the list in taxonomic order.

On-Alert Species

In addition to the Tipping Point species above, these 20 bird species have lost half their populations in the past 50 years.

Baird’s Sparrow
Black-billed Cuckoo
Black Skimmer
Black Swift
Canada Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Clark’s Grebe
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Grace’s Warbler
Long-billed Dowitcher
Mourning Warbler
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Rock Sandpiper
Snowy Owl
Thick-billed Longspur
Western Grebe
Wilson’s Plover
Wood Thrush

Urgent Action Is Needed to Help These Birds Before They Become Endangered

  • portrait of an albatross, formatted in a circle

    Coastal and Oceanic Birds

    Nearly a quarter of seabirds found in U.S. waters are at risk of Endangered listing, including murrelets, albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters.

  • portrait of a black, white, and yellow songbird, formatted in a circle

    Grassland Birds

    Prairie specialists such as Mountain Plover, Sprague’s Pipit, and Chestnut-collared Longspur have lost more than 75% of their populations since 1970.

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    Aridland Birds

    Aridland birds are experiencing long-term declines, including Allen’s Hummingbird, Bendire’s Thrasher, and Greater Sage-Grouse.

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    Forest Birds

    The steepest declines among forest birds include species that specialize on tree seeds (e.g., Pinyon Jay), long-distance migrants (e.g., Bicknell’s Thrush), and aerial insect-eating specialists (e.g., Chimney Swift).

  • portrait of a mottled brown rail with a long bill, formatted in a circle

    Wetland Birds

    Though many waterbirds benefited from decades of wetland conservation, steep bird declines are still occurring in coastal saltmarshes (e.g., Saltmarsh Sparrow), freshwater marshes (e.g., Yellow Rail), and beaches (e.g., Least Tern).

  • portrait of a flying shorebird with a very long bill, formatted in a circle

    Arctic and Alpine Tundra Birds

    Shrinking habitats due to changing climate and resource extraction threaten Arctic-breeding shorebirds (e.g., Hudsonian Godwit and Whimbrel) and alpine birds (e.g., Black Rosy-Finch).

Images via Macaulay Library: Laysan Albatross by Lucas Corneliussen; Bobolink by Brad Imhoff; Greater Sage-Grouse by Brandon Nidiffer; Prairie Warbler by Anonymous; King Rail by Anonymous; Hudsonian Godwit by Dorian Anderson.