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New report: Hawaiian birds in greatest peril, but conservation efforts work

Many Hawaiian birds now face extinction, and seabirds and desert birds are in decline, according to the first comprehensive U.S. "State of the Birds" report, unveiled by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in Washington, D.C., March 19.

Many waterfowl species, on the other hand, have undergone remarkable recoveries, thanks to effective conservation efforts, says the report, which was developed in part by scientists from Cornell's Lab of Ornithology and whose findings were based on 40 years of data from citizen-science participants.

This assessment of bird health serves as an indicator for the health of the environment overall, according to the report.

"The 40 years of data on bird populations analyzed for this report are telling us where we need to act most urgently, and unprecedented cooperation among agencies and conservation organizations gives us the mandate to reverse declines of bird populations and improve the health of the habitats we all depend on," said Kenneth Rosenberg, the lab's director of conservation science.

In Hawaii, for example, more birds -- including the stunning orange-and-black 'akohekohe (a Hawaiian honeycreeper) and the beautiful thrush puaiohi -- are in more danger of extinction than any other birds in the United States. In fact, nearly all native forest birds in Hawaii are endangered, faced with an onslaught of introduced feral mammals and predators, invasive plants, foreign diseases and habitat destruction. Although Hawaiian birds represent 44 percent of bird species federally listed as endangered or threatened, only 4 percent of all state and federal funding for listed species is spent on the Hawaiian birds, says the report. Nevertheless, intensive management of native forests in several protected areas has produced dramatic population growth of such birds as the Hawaii creeper and 'akiapola'au.

Declining seabirds indicate the failing health of the oceans, according to the report. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. seabirds have declined, reflecting such threats as pollution, fishing bycatch, disturbance and destruction of nesting areas, and collapses in food supply from overfishing and climate change. However, steps to minimize bycatch have saved the lives of black-footed, laysan and short-tailed albatrosses.

Along the eastern seashore, overharvesting horseshoe crabs has reduced the population density of their eggs by up to 99 percent, contributing to steep declines of many shorebirds, including red knots, which must gorge on the eggs to survive their long migrations.

At the same time, aridland birds, which nest exclusively in deserts, shrub-scrub or chaparral, declined by 30 percent on average, largely due to sprawling urban development. In America's heartland, where little native prairie remains, birds show some of the steepest declines, but land restoration and farm conservation programs protecting millions of acres are helping to stabilize downward trends for some grassland birds.

One striking finding is that many waterfowl species have increased significantly in the past 40 years because of coordinated conservation efforts. The sale of federal "duck stamps" and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act have helped protect nearly 30 million acres of wetlands, contributing to an 11 percent increase in breeding ducks over historical averages, including a recent record high for redheads.

"These results emphasize that investment in wetlands conservation has paid huge dividends," said Rosenberg. "Now we need to invest similarly in other neglected habitats where birds are undergoing the steepest declines."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy also collaborated on the report, which can be viewed at http://www.stateofthebirds.org.

Miyoko Chu is director of communications at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Blaine Friedlander