Check-up on U.S. Birds: Public Lands Critical to These Sentinels of Our Own Health

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

A dusky red bird with tufted head was frolicking in the wet branches of the maple tree out front this morning – perhaps a female cardinal? Not brightly colored enough for a male, I’m guessing.

I’m no birder, but I do love to see, and hear, the birds returning to my yard. Robins prancing across the lawn pulling earth worms from the soil – a sign that spring is really here. (We’ve had to keep the garage door closed so swallows don’t gather mud, moss and grass to build a nest on the light fixtures over our cars – not the safest place to settle.)

All this said, it’s good to know there are people who are much more tuned in to the habits and health of the amazing array of feathered friends that visit our feeders and bring song to our hikes in the park (or even our walks to the parking lot). In fact, data gathered by citizen scientists who enter their observations in eBird, an online tracking tool, have contributed to the latest report on the health of birds in the U.S.

The release this week of the 2011 State of the Birds report by a consortium of federal agencies and conservation organizations including The Nature Conservancy, highlights the importance of U.S. publicly-owned lands – more than 850 million acres of land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean – in sustaining the health of birds.

David Mehlman, the Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program Director, says the 2011 State of the Birds Report is an “innovative collaborative effort to, for the first time, examine the distribution of birds on public lands and waters in the U.S.” He blogs about the new report on Cool Green Science.

Much like the canaries in a coal mine, used by miners a century ago to warn them of dangerous gases, birds of all kinds in the wild can offer signals and warnings about the health of our environment. For instance, it was the thinning of birds’ egg shells that first raised questions about the safety of pesticides some 40 years ago.

The 2010 State of the Birds report focused directly on climate change, including “the first systematic analysis of what may happen to bird populations in each major biome of the United Sates as a consequence of climate change.”

That report concluded that, across all kinds of habitats, birds that are already experiencing population declines are expected to be more vulnerable to climate change than bird species not threatened by other factors. This appears to be the case since these species are already affected by factors that will in turn be exacerbated by climate change.

In addition, warmer winters in recent decades have played a role in shifting winter bird ranges northward. For example, birds such as the Northern Bobwhite and Marbled Murrelet have suffered habitat loss and are experiencing shifting distribution patterns due to climate change. Audubon tracks how hundreds of bird species are on the move as they adapt.

This year’s report takes a snapshot of how birds depend on public lands, finding one in four species found there are in peril. The section on forests notes differences between conservation in the U.S. East, where there are relatively few publicly owned lands, and West, where huge blocks of public lands are set aside for conservation and multiple use. Meanwhile, “Public lands in the East are often the largest blocks of remaining forest in rapidly developing urban landscapes,” the report states. “Expanding the network of protected lands is important for bird populations.”

This recommendation for greater protection of Eastern forests from development takes on added significance against the backdrop of recent deep Congressional budget cuts to conservation programs. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps expand public lands and protects hunting and fishing areas, was cut by 33 percent.

Just when birds need enhanced networks of safe havens to complete their migrations amid a rapidly changing climate, federal funding for expanded national and state parks, forests and wildlife refuges may be lacking.

From the Gunnison Sage-Grouse to the Kirtland’s Warbler, the report offers updates on rare or threatened birds, as well as some of the more common species you might spot in your yard.

Do you have a favorite feathered friend? Check out the report’s maps, organized by habitat type, to see how bird species found there are doing.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and feature writer for The Nature Conservancy

Cover image courtesy: 2011 State of the Birds


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