Where the Birds Are

A national census of birds shows where protection is critical for populations dependent on public lands.

Remember filling out your census form?

The United States Department of the Interior wanted to know similar information about birds. They didn't send a questionnaire to every nest-builder, asking what species they were or how many dependent chicks they had. But they did produce the State of the Birds 2011 report to give a snapshot of bird populations in the U.S.

"The State of the Birds report is a measurable indicator of how well we are fulfilling our shared role as stewards of our nation's public lands and waters," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a press release.

The report looked at bird numbers and distributions on public lands to see how our fine feathered friends were fairing. Nearly 850 million acres of public land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean were encompassed by the study.

The report also provided evidence that many birds depend on public lands for survival.

"Although we have made enormous progress in conserving habitat on public lands, we clearly have much more work to do. The good news is that because birds so extensively use public lands and waters as habitat, effective management and conservation efforts can make a significant difference in whether these species recover or slide towards extinction," said Salazar.

Different habitat types, or biomes, fared better than others.

Wetlands were a standout in conservation success. During the past 40 years, 39 species of hunted waterfowl have increased by more than 100 percent. Over that same time period, 30 million acres of wetlands have been acquired.

Hawaiian birds, on the other hand, are in serious peril. Public lands in Hawaii are home to 73 percent of declining populations of forest birds native to the islands. On Kauai, 78 percent rely on state land. On the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, four endangered species are completely dependent on public lands.

Arid lands, like deserts, are also in danger. Seventy-five percent of birds on arid publicly-owned lands are declining. Thirty-nine percent of those species are of concern to conservationists.

The marine waters of the United States are home to 86 ocean bird species and 173 coastal species. The report indicates that these ecosystems are under severe stress, since 39 percent of ocean birds are in decline, and almost half are of conservation concern. All marine waters are public property in the United States.

Unlike marine ecosystems, little of America's grassland's are publicly owned, only 13 percent. But, grassland birds are in serious danger as well. Forty-eight percent of birds that breed in grassland ecosystems are of concern. Four of them are endangered species.

Back on dry land, the report found that large unbroken expanses of publicly-owned forest were important for species like the Kirtland's warbler. Ninety-seven percent of the warbler's habitat is on on public lands.

Alaska in particular has huge amounts of publicly-owned forests and other lands, and these areas provide habitat for a many of Alaska's birds. In fact 90 percent of boreal forest, alpine, and arctic breeding birds depend on public lands. Alaska's public lands are also home to 34 shorebird species of high conservation status.

The report showed just how dependent some species are on the lands that all Americans hold in common, and will help land managers understand how to best conserve the shared property of all U.S. citizens.

"The 2011 State of the Birds report reflects significant achievement by public agencies and all of our long-standing partners in improving bird habitats," said Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman in a press release.

"The USDA programs are innovative and creative. Over the last two years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has played a critical role in working cooperatively with landowners to conserve migratory birds in the Gulf of Mexico, sage grouse in the great plains, and others," he continued.

"The Forest Service has developed a draft Forest Planning rule that will ensure our National Forests support birds and other wildlife for decades to come," said Sherman.

The report was compiled form information gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey's Protected Areas Database of the United States, as well as information posted by the public to eBirds.

IMAGE 1: The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus. (Wikimedia Commons)

IMAGE 2: The Sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, use public and private lands in Nebraska during their migrations. (Wikimedia Commons)

IMAGE 3: The Kirtland's warbler, Dendroica kirtlandii. (Wikimedia Commons)