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Arid Land Birds in Steep Decline

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Bendire's thrashers, and other arid land birds, are in deep trouble | Photo: Richard W./Flickr/Creative Commons License

A new report from a consortium of wildlife conservation organizations reveals that birds of America's deserts, chaparral, and sagebrush lands are in more trouble than those in other habitats.

According to The State of the Birds 2014, released Tuesday by a committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, birds of the United States' aridlands have been declining in population more steeply over recent years than birds elsewhere in the country.

Since 1968, say the report's authors, populations of 17 key aridland bird species have dropped by 46 percent, with a six percent drop just since 2009.

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The U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative is a working group of 23 government agencies and wildlife protection organizations.

According to the report, the chief threats facing aridland birds are loss or fragmentation of habitat due to residential and energy development, including renewable energy. "Long-term habitat degradation from unsustainable land use, invasions of non-native grasses, and encroachment by trees and shrubs also play significant (and underappreciated) roles in the decline," the report adds.

Birds of the eastern and western forests are also in trouble. Grassland birds are much reduced in number from 45 years ago, but their steep decline over the last few decades stabilized in 1990, when more attention was paid to conserving and restoring grassland habitats.

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Population change of indicator birds in different North American habitats | Graphic:: State Of The Birds 2014

The value of habitat conservation is shown even more dramatically by the nation's wetland birds: the 87 indicator bird species surveyed to represent freshwater wetland birds in general have risen in population by more than 40 percent since 1968. That's testimony to the importance of the federal Clean Water Act and conservation measures in the Farm Bill. Coastal wetland birds have gained by about 8 percent since 2009.

That's not to say that wetland birds are doing well everywhere. In some regions, loss of wetlands is still proceeding at an alarming pace. But the relative success of conservation efforts shows there's at least a possibility that similar attention paid to conservation might well stem population losses in aridland birds.

The aridland birds faring most poorly, according to the report, are the Bendire's and Leconte's thrashers, both ground-dwelling birds dependent on desert shrubland habitat. Common desert birds that have nonetheless been declining steeply include loggerhead shrikes and verdins.

In a press statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell applauded her agencies' work on the report. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and other Interior agencies practice science-based, landscape-scale conservation of these lands and their wildlife in partnership with scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey. I am proud that these agencies have collaborated with the Smithsonian and many others on today's report. The Department of the Interior looks forward to continued cooperation to address these habitat conservation challenges."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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