Flight risk: more of America's birds are in danger

Some 178 species are endangered or in decline, new list says. That's up 11 percent from five years ago.

With birds increasingly hammered by climate change, habitat loss, and a host of other threats, the list of US species in dire trouble is getting longer.

Unlike many still common "backyard bird" species whose notable declines were documented in a national study this spring, the much-less familiar species on the new "2007 WatchList for US Birds" released yesterday are considered in danger of extinction or in very serious decline. Some 178 species made this year's watch list, up 11 percent from five years ago.

The masked booby, wandering tattler, and Mexican chickadee are among 12 new species added to the US watch list, which is compiled every five years by the National Audubon Society in New York and the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, both of which are conservation groups.

"The watch list sounds a real warning," said David Pashley, director of conservation programs for the American Bird Conservancy and a coauthor of the list, in a statement.

Many consider the ultimate warning list to be the federal Endangered Species list maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which provides taxpayer-funded recovery plans and habitat protection. But with federal listing rates at historic lows, the new watch list functions as the next best "call to action" to highlight troubled species and halt their decline before it worsens, experts say.

Take, for instance, the saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow, which is restricted to a narrow band of salt marsh along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. On one side of the marsh is intense human development and on the other the threat of rising sea levels. Even a one-foot rise in sea level due to global warming would be devastating to the sparrow.

The black-capped vireo in central Texas remains on the list, its slender population threatened by development and the nest parasitism of the brown-headed cowbird.

Yet there is some good news included in the watch list's bird call to arms: 27 species are coming off the list this year – a number of those because of population increases due to habitat protection and other conservation efforts, experts say.

"Certainly some bird species are doing better, and their absence from this new list reflects that," says Gregory Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.

Among those soaring off the list are the ferruginous hawk, Wilson's phalarope, the worm-eating warbler, and the black oystercatcher, all of which are doing better than they were just five years ago thanks to focused attention, Dr. Butcher says. The Wilson's phalarope, for instance, nests in sloughs of North Dakota where conservation work for waterfowl also helped it recover.

In a few cases, studies found bird populations to be healthier than earlier believed, such as with the McCown's longspur. The small ground-feeding bird, whose warbling call used to be common on the northwestern Great Plains, was listed in the "red" category of the 2002 WatchList – in imminent danger of extinction – but is not listed this time. A closer analysis finds that it is more widely distributed than earlier believed.

Despite continuing growth in the number of bird species in trouble, this year has been notable for some successes. In June, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list – a victory for the federal law that protected it during recovery.

Add the whooping crane, too. While still listed as endangered, the species has rebounded from the brink of extinction – with just a few dozen left – to more than 200 today.

Even so, many species on the watch list should be federally listed as endangered, a protection Butcher says is being more widely recognized for its positive impact.

"The bald eagle, peregrine falcon, the California condor, and the whooping crane all used to be on the endangered list at one time but are doing really well now," he says. "If we take good care of these birds, they can rebound."

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