Populations of many species of birds have plunged over the past 40 years, primarily due to habitat loss, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"Just as they were when Rachel Carson published 'Silent Spring' nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells."
The largest threats to bird populations are habitat destruction, climate change, disease and invasive species, the report says. Other factors leading to large numbers of bird deaths include collisions with buildings and radio or cell phone towers, and attacks by feral or domestic cats.
Among the most threatened birds are those living in Hawaii -- home to more than a third of the birds listed under the endangered species act -- and mainland birds living along coasts or in grasslands and deserts. Populations of birds that breed exclusively in grasslands have dropped 40 percent since 1969.
According to Michael J. Bean of Environmental Defense Fund, more threats to grassland birds are on the horizon. The highly successful Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers are paid to leave critical bird habitat fallow, is set to expire in September. The loss of these areas "could be the tipping point that makes an endangered species designation for the lesser prairie chicken unavoidable," he said.
The report notes that populations of many wetland birds have increased dramatically, however, with all 39 species of hunted waterfowl that are federally monitored doubling in number over the past 40 years. Scientists attribute this to large sums put toward conservation by politically influential sport hunter groups.
"When we try, we can do it," said John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University. "There are now populations and habitats across the country begging for us to do it."
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