Birds Without Borders: Continental Bird Conservation
One hundred years ago, North America united for birds.
This August marks the 100th anniversary of the first Migratory Bird Treaty. This groundbreaking international agreement between the United States and Canada was America’s first international commitment to protect natural resources across political boundaries. This milestone set the stage for continent-wide, cooperative conservation of migratory birds. Twenty years later, Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas committed his country to a treaty with the U.S. protecting birds and other wildlife, connecting all of North America in its efforts to safeguard our shared species.
In this centennial year, celebrating the earliest efforts towards international migratory bird protection, Canada, United States and Mexico are uniting once again with a “State of North America’s Birds” report—a groundbreaking collaboration to evaluate bird populations in nine key ecosystems across the continent.
This report, developed by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and built using data collected by tens of thousands of citizen scientists across North America, is a call to action to governments, private industry, and the public to come together to support a beloved shared resource: our migratory birds. This unprecedented, continent-wide analysis demonstrates the power of people understanding conservation needs and taking action to make conservation happen.
Of the 1,154 bird species that occur in North America, one third are on the report’s Watch List, which identifies high-risk species. In particular, birds that depend on oceans and tropical forests are most imperiled due to severe habitat threats, restricted ranges, and declining populations.
The analysis of all 1,154 bird species in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico identified 432 species that meet the criteria for the Watch List.
In spite of these alarming numbers, we know that when people push for positive change, bird conservation succeeds. One hundred years ago, passionate wildlife supporters encouraged national leaders to invest in bird conservation by signing the Migratory Bird Treaty and putting an end to market hunting. Investments in wetlands have paid off, too. Case in point: The 1934 Duck Stamp Act illustrates commitments by hunters to protect waterfowl habitat, a key accomplishment that has created a strong positive outlook for ducks, herons, egrets, and many more birds.
Another example of people pushing for positive change is the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). WHSRN was launched in 1985 in response to declining shorebird populations. Today, 95 sites have joined the network, helping to protect over 33 million acres of shorebird habitats from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
For Rob Clay, Director of the WHSRN Executive Office, building connections between sites and local partners is key to the future of shorebird (and all migratory bird) conservation, “Without tackling the global drivers of threats to shorebird populations, we will only continue to firefight the ever more frequent threats at sites. If the changes at global and political levels are not inspired by and delivering at local levels, conservation efforts will remain intention and not impact,” said Clay.
Western Sandpipers (yellow lines) and Semipalmated Sandpipers (orange lines) rely on migratory stopover sites designated for protection by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (red dots) during their intercontinental journeys from Alaska to South America. Western Sandpiper tracking data provided by Kansas State University. Semipalmated Sandpiper tracking data provided by Manomet, USFWS, and partners. Sandpiper artwork by Misaki Ouchida.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Migratory Bird Treaty, birds once again need our help. Fortunately, there are many ways to support strong bird populations. Corporations can emerge as sustainability leaders, making healthy lands and waters part of their long-term growth strategies. Even our individual actions can have far-reaching positive impacts. Simple acts like choosing sustainably created products (such as certified sustainable paper products, certified sustainable seafood, and Bird Friendly coffee), preventing bird collisions with windows on our houses and office buildings, and contributing bird sighting data to international databases like the International Shorebird Survey can add up to a powerful continental force for bird conservation.
Over the last 100 years we have made great strides in tri-national bird conservation. But birds and their habitats are still threatened. It’s time to recommit ourselves to this effort so we can look ahead to a bright future for birds in the next 100 years.