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Scientists document a billion fewer landbirds since 1970

Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States.
Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States.

A new analysis of the population status and trends of all landbirds in the continental U.S. and Canada documents widespread declines among 448 bird species — a troubling indicator of the health of these species and their ecosystems.

According to the new Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan, released August 15, nearly 20 percent of U.S. and Canadian landbird species are on a path toward endangerment and extinction in the absence of conservation action.

Partners in Flight is a network of more than 150 partnering organizations throughout the Western Hemisphere. They include federal, state, and local government agencies, philanthropic foundations, professional organizations, conservation groups, industry, the academic community, and private individuals. Partners in Flight was founded in 1990.

In 2004, it published the results of a comprehensive assessment of the vulnerability of landbird species in the U.S. and Canada. The 2004 plan presented a Watch List that identified the species of highest conservation concern, along with a summary of their status, monitoring needs, and the first estimates of population size, leading to bold continental population objectives.

The just-released 2016 Landbird Conservation Plan Revision is an update of the 2004 plan.


“Birds and their habitats face unprecedented threats from climate change, urban growth, and a widespread decline in habitat quantity and quality,” says Jerome Ford, assistant director of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program. “Although much progress has been made over the past 20 years, the task of conserving several hundred landbird species across vast and varied landscapes under diverse ownership requires unprecedented levels of cooperation, coordination, and planning.”

The steepest recent declines are seen in grassland birds; species of aridland habitats such as sagebrush and desert scrub; and forest species dependent on sustainable forest management or natural disturbance. Partners in Flight estimates that breeding landbird populations have been reduced by over a billion individuals since 1970.

86 landbirds on Watch List

Among 86 Watch List species — landbirds of highest conservation concern — 22 have already lost at least half of their population in the past 40 years and are projected to lose an additional 50 percent of their current population within the next 40 years, say the plan’s authors. For at least six species, this “half-life” window is fewer than 20 years.


“The window for reversing declines and preventing listings is narrower than we originally thought,” says applied conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We must start implementing conservation actions across the full life-cycle of birds in order to address threats that are resulting in these rapid declines.”

Rosenberg and Terrell D. Rich, author of a feature story in our August 2016 issue about the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, were two of the plan’s 23 co-authors.

The 2016 revision presents new science using year-round eBird data to assign stewardship responsibility, identifying regions of greatest importance to landbirds during winter and migration.


The plan also recommends specific actions, ranging from supporting sustainable forestry practices to reducing collision with buildings to expanding markets for bird-friendly products. Many recommendations target the full life-cycle of birds, including nesting habitats in Canada and the U.S., migration routes throughout the hemisphere, and tropical overwintering habitats in Mexico and Central and South America.

The second half of the plan highlights Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, their conservation challenges and successes, and the continental Watch List species they have responsibility for in their regions.

For nearly 30 years, Migratory Bird Joint Ventures and other regional partnerships have worked to conserve millions of acres of essential habitat for the benefit of birds, other wildlife, and people. The plan provides regional partnerships with important information on Watch List species, such as population trends, loss, and extinction risk, to aid in prioritizing and carrying out conservation actions across the full life-cycle of birds.


You can download the 2016 Landbird Conservation Plan Revision from Partners in Flight.

Study: A third of North American bird species need urgent conservation action (5/18/2016).

New reports show North America’s birds face shifting, shrinking ranges in years ahead (10/24/2014).



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