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The State of North America’s Birds: How Are Birds Faring in North American’s Nine Major Ecosystems?

By Hugh Powell
From the Summer 2016 issue of Living Bird magazine.
State of North America's Birds- 9 ecosystems
A snapshot of the nine ecosystems covered in the 2016 State of North America's Birds Report. View larger. Click here to see a map of where the ecosystems are located in North America.

How can you protect a bird’s home when that home stretches across a continent? That’s always been the challenge in conserving migratory birds, whose wings carry them across oceans and international borders seemingly effortlessly, twice a year.

In North America, birds became an international issue a century ago, when the governments of the U.S. and Canada came together to sign the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, followed 20 years later by a similar treaty between the U.S. and Mexico. Now, a new effort brings together more than 40 conservation groups (including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and government agencies from our three nations to create the first-ever species-by-species conservation assessment for all 1,154 bird species in Canada, the continental U.S., and Mexico.

The result is the State of North America’s Birds 2016 report, and it clearly shows both how urgently we need conservation action and how effective such efforts can be when implemented. A full 37 percent of our countries’ birds—432 species—are on the report’s Watch List for species in need of urgent conservation. But we’ve also seen waterfowl populations rebound given the wetland conservation efforts of the last 40 years.

The report also provides a report-card-style assessment for the birds of each of North America’s nine major ecosystems. Most at risk are birds of our oceans and the tropical forests of Mexico. For these habitats, more than 50 percent of bird species are on the Watch List. Birds species of coasts, aridlands, and grasslands are faring somewhat better but still faced with steep population declines owing to habitat loss and climate change.

The report makes extensive use of data collected by tens of thousands of birders through citizen-science programs such as eBird. The report’s science team used that data set to build animated models of how a species uses the entire continent over the entire year. The most encouraging statistic to emerge from that analysis? More than 350 species cross our national borders as part of their everyday lives—a true shared bird heritage that Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans can work together to preserve.

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