Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy recently completed a comprehensive analysis of all birds in the United States. The bad news is that 217 of 700 U.S. species—178 from the continental United States and 39 from Hawaii— landed on our newly compiled WatchList, which employs a critical evaluation of such factors as population trends, rarity, range size, and threats to identify the species in the greatest peril. In all, 59 continental species show up in the list’s category for those most threatened with extinction. The good news is that in the past, when we have taken aggressive action, the declines that put birds on this list have often been reversed.
The majestic California condor provides the most striking example. Once down to only nine birds, all in captivity, today their numbers have increased to 301 individuals, including 154 that are flying free. Now the public can once again see them in the wild in parts of California, near Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and in Mexico’s Baja California. Audubon recently led a successful effort in California to ban lead ammunition that was poisoning the newly released birds. Today the condor’s outlook is even brighter. (For more on the ban, read "Dodging a Bullet.")
Like California condors, whooping cranes were also once down to fewer than 20 birds. Thanks to protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, there are now more than 200 whoopers in the wild flock that winters in Texas, and their numbers are growing.
Piping plovers were sliding toward extinction from loss of beach nesting habitat caused by development and recreational use, and from disturbance by pets. Intensive conservation efforts supported by the Endangered Species Act have now helped stabilize populations in some areas and even increase them in others.
Even more impressive, several species once on the verge of extinction have rebounded so successfully that they have come off the WatchList. These include bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and brown pelicans. Once DDT and other toxic chemicals were banned or regulated, these birds recovered, and today they have become relatively abundant.
Other species are not so lucky. Gunnison sage-grouse are now down to fewer than 5,000 birds in Colorado and Utah, and still dropping. The recent explosion of oil and gas development in the region has added enormous pressure on a species in an already perilous situation.
Meanwhile, the tiny saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow is restricted to a narrow band of saltmarsh along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Long threatened by coastal development, it now faces a new danger in global warming. As sea levels rise, its habitat will be the first to go. Global warming also threatens the ivory gull. Like polar bears, this bird depends on the polar ice for survival during crucial times of the year. Unless we address this critical issue in time to reverse the rapid melting of polar ice, this beautiful gull could slide into extinction.
Intensive conservation efforts to protect Florida scrub-jays have stabilized populations in some areas, but development in other parts of the species’ range has caused the overall population to continue to fall. With only a few thousand birds remaining, more areas need protection.
The message from all these WatchList species is clear. Most threats could be removed by protecting critical habitat, reducing toxic pollution, and confronting global warming. People cause these problems, and people can solve them. When we made the effort in the past, it worked. And it’s never too late.
To see the entire WatchList, including the species in your area, and to learn how you can help, visit Audubon.org.