Despite what you might think from my earlier posts, the U.S. State of the Birds Report does contain some good news.
Perhaps the most encouraging is the status of wetlands birds (ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, herons, egrets, etc.) whose indicator shows a dramatic increase starting in the late 1980’s, with current populations far above our base year of 1968.
A close look at the data shows clearly that much of this increase is due to the success of waterfowl conservation efforts, along with dedicated reintroduction work focused on a few species. The long-term increase in such well-known and appreciated waterfowl as Ross’s and Snow Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Hooded Merganser is a remarkable testament to wetlands conservation work over the last 20 years (see below) and to public support for wetlands and wetland-associated bird conservation.
However, the wetlands birds increase also includes other species from a wide variety of other families, such as Bald Eagle, Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, and Sandhill Crane (and the list goes on). Also of note are the increases in Trumpeter Swan and Canada Goose, both of which have had highly successful reintroduction efforts over the years. (Some might say too successful, in the case of the Canada Goose!).
What has led to this success?
I believe the primary ingredients of success for wetlands birds has been the dedicated efforts to develop comprehensive plans for their conservation (most notably waterfowl) followed by an increase in funding at all levels (federal, state, private) to actually implement these plans.
The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) was the first such large-scale plan to develop continental goals for bird conservation and specify how these goals could be accomplished. NAWMP spurred the development of similar plans for landbirds, shorebirds and waterbirds.
However, what has ensured success has been the provision of financial resources for land protection, restoration, and enhancement from both the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (aka “Duck Stamp”) program and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. This combination of science-based, comprehensive conservation planning coupled with the resources needed to implement the plans has brought us the success shown by the wetlands bird indicator in the State of the Birds report. (Another factor is the banning of harmful pesticides, a key element in the recovery of the Bald Eagle and numerous other species.)
Despite the good news, the wetlands bird data indicate some problems that are potentially masked by the species that have increased. More than a few species show consistent and troubling long-term declines. Examples include Lesser Yellowlegs, King Rail, and Rusty Blackbird, birds all associated with wetlands, but with quite different geographic ranges. Declines are also found in some waterfowl species, such as White-winged Scoter and Mottled Duck, suggesting that our conservation efforts need to continue and/or require refinement.
It is also important to point out that despite these amazing recent increases, population sizes today are nowhere near what were present 100-150 years ago and will probably never return to that level. Nevertheless, all birders and conservationists should celebrate these successes, while continuing to work to conserve those that are still declining.