The 2011 State of the Birds Report

It’s bad and it’s back: the 2011 State of the Birds Report was released today by Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

This report, the third annual State of the Birds Report, features an analysis of birds on public lands in the United States. Previous year’s reports, in 2009 and 2010, dealt with birds as indicators of environmental health and climate change, respectively. 

The report is very timely, given President Obama’s focus on public lands through the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which the Conservancy strongly supports.

Once again, I was part of the team that developed the report, continuing to lead the aridlands habitat analyses. What made this report possible at this point in time was the availability of two key pieces of information: modeled bird distribution data across the country and a full dataset on public lands of the U.S.

The first piece, modeled bird distributions, was made possible by the growing size and maturity of the eBird project, run by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon. This “citizen science” effort has collected hundreds of thousands of bird observations across the country. The Cornell team, with essential support from Cornell University, used these data to model the occurrence of bird species at a regularly spaced grid in the U.S. This allowed us to estimate the percent of each species on public and non-public lands using the second key piece: the Protected Areas Dataset of the U.S. (PAD-US).

The PAD-US, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey’s GAP Analysis Program, is a first-of-its-kind map of protected areas in the U.S. This dataset includes almost all public and tribal lands plus many importantly privately owned areas, including reserves of The Nature Conservancy. It is this dataset that allowed us to allocate the modeled bird distributions between public and non-public lands and, within public lands, between the major federal and state land managing agencies. These latter include the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and state park and forest systems.

What did we find out? There are about 850 million acres of publicly owned land in the U.S. and 3.5 million square miles of ocean (all off-shore waters of the U.S. are publicly owned). We found that over 300 birds in the U.S. have half or more of their distribution on public lands, illustrating the critical dependence of birds on our public lands.

Examples of some species or groups that are particularly dependent on public lands include forest birds of Hawai’i, where the entire population of some endangered species is only found on public lands; aridlands species such as Gunnison sage-grouse, sage sparrow, and Le Conte’s thrasher, each of which have over 75% of their distribution on public lands; and arctic, alpine and boreal forest breeding birds in Alaska. In contrast, birds of eastern forests and grasslands have very low proportions of their distributions on public lands, highlighting the general small area of public lands containing these habitat types.

Given the amount of work that the Conservancy does with land managing agency partners, the sections of the report on each agency are very interesting reading. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages more acres than any other agency, has enormous responsibilities for aridlands and a variety of arctic species, such as sanderling. The U.S. Forest Service, as might be expected, has high responsibility for birds in all forest types in the U.S., particularly western forests (for species such as white-headed woodpecker and Williamson’s sapsucker), alpine species (white-tailed ptarmigan, black and brown-capped rosy-finch), and Mexican pine-oak forest (including Mexican Ccickadee, painted redstart, Grace’s warbler).

Perhaps the most interesting finding for any agency was the importance of lands managed by state agencies, including wildlife management areas, natural areas, state forests, state parks, state trust lands and recreation areas. State agencies, collectively owning 189 million acres, have relatively large holdings of boreal forest, marsh and grassland habitats. State-owned boreal forests are particularly important for species such as black-backed woodpecker, blackpoll warbler and Bicknell’s thrush.

The analyses used in the 2011 State of the Birds Report will be particularly helpful in helping the Conservancy, numerous conservation partners and the public agencies themselves in formulating land management policies that can facilitate the long-term conservation of birds on public lands.

These data are very important right now as the nation moves forward in addressing its energy needs. For example, work recently done by Conservancy scientists shows how wind energy can be located with minimal impact to natural areas and wildlife. This work can be further integrated with the bird distribution generated by the State of the Birds team to rigorously assess how energy needs can be met with minimal or no impact on birds.

In a similar vein, these data on bird distribution could be used to provide input on how and where to locate solar energy facilities in the southwest in the context of the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement which the Conservancy is actively assisting on.

I’ve only begun to tap the surface of the findings in this year’s State of the Birds Report. Please check out the full report and supporting information at and enjoy your public lands!

(Image: Sanderling feed along the surf of Goosewing Beach, Westport area of Rhode Island. Image credit: ©Mark Godfrey)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Yeah! Glad you could help! SAVE THE HUMMINGBIRDS!!!

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