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Why the notion of bird-conservation triage is no longer heretical

Black Skimmers at Cape May Point, New Jersey, by Linda Widdop.
Black Skimmers at Cape May Point, New Jersey, by Linda Widdop.

A pair of ecologists from Point Blue (PRBO) Conservation Science have stated the unthinkable.

“Biodiversity is in a bind,” write John A. Wiens and Thomas Gardali in the August 2013 issue of The Condor.

Despite wide-spread awareness of the biodiversity crisis, conservation efforts are failing to keep pace. Government funding has stagnated, and nongovernmental support is insufficient to cover the shortfall. Worse, as many as 20,000 imperiled species in the United States are “conservation-reliant” — that is, even after, or if, they come back, they will still require costly ongoing management to maintain their numbers.

“Clearly, the financial resources (not to mention the political will) to support the management needed to conserve all of these species are unlikely to materialize,” write the researchers. “Choices about how to allocate scarce conservation resources will have to be made.”

To help set priorities, Wiens and Gardali analyzed 92 species, subspecies, and populations listed either as California Bird Species of Special Concern or as endangered or threatened by the federal government or the state of California. Then they categorized each one according to the threat level it faces and the amount of management it will require going forward.

Species that face low threat levels and have low conservation-reliance scores were labeled “low priority,” while highly threatened species with low conservation-reliance scores were called “good investments.”


Marbled Murrelet, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike, and California Condor — species that are highly threatened and require large or continuing investments — warrant careful consideration, say the researchers.

Species to “consider carefully”

Short-tailed Albatross*
Fulvous Whistling-Duck
Catalina California Quail
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
American White Pelican
California Condor*
Northern Harrier
Western Snowy Plover (interior)
Western Snowy Plover (coastal)*
Gull-billed Tern
California Least Tern*
Black Skimmer
Cassin’s Auklet
Marbled Murrelet*
Willow Flycatcher (non-extimus)#
Southwestern Willow Flycatcher*
San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike*
Least Bell’s Vireo
Yellow Warbler
Kern Red-winged Blackbird
Tricolored Blackbird

* Federally listed. # State listed. All others are Bird Species of Special Concern.

Over half of the taxa examined were categorized as “low priority” or “good return on investment,” suggesting that conservation investments may have good prospects of success. But nearly a third were categorized as “consider carefully.”


“Success for these taxa, even with considerable investment, may be far from certain,” conclude the ecologists.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 issue of BirdWatching.

Read the abstract:

John A. Wiens and Thomas Gardali, 2013, Conservation Reliance Among California’s At-Risk Birds, The Condor 115(3):456-464. Abstract.


Originally Published

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