Friday, February 25, 2011

"Saving our Shared Birds": a Report from Partners in Flight

Upland Sandpiper breeding in Strawberry Lake Community Pasture, Saskatchewan. T Herriot

A couple of weeks ago, Partners in Flight released a new report called "Saving Our Shared Birds" presenting for the first time "a comprehensive conservation assessment of landbirds in Canada, Mexico, and the continental United States".

Grassland birds in temperate habitats once again proved to be the species in steepest decline:
Grassland birds in this habitat have suffered among the steepest declines of any North American landbirds. These include many familiar birds of rural landscapes including Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark,Bobolink, Lark Bunting, and Horned Lark.Incentives for bird-friendly agricultural practices and protection of native prairie are essential for reversing declines of grassland birds.

How bad is the decline? Looking at the grassland bird species that breed and or winter in the three nations, the report says that
Loss and degradation of both breeding and wintering habitat has led to an overall decline of 45% for 33 grassland species, a combined loss of 500 million birds over the past 40 years.

The report does not mince words about what is behind the decline. The data shows clearly that agriculture is the number one cause of habitat loss and degradation. Habitat loss is worst in the Chihuahuan grasslands of Mexico, but grasslands in Canada and the United States are also being lost to agriculture. Another quote:
Today, the expansion of agriculture continues to be the major driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture affects every type of habitat and impacts 76% of the landbird species of highest conservation concern; 65% are threatened by unsustainable livestock grazing. Preventing the conversion of large areas of habitat, whether grassland, forest, or aridlands, in the core distribution of species of concern will be necessary to stem the rapid decline of many landbirds. Policies and management practices are tools that can support the needs of high-priority birds on vast public lands in Canada and the United States. . . . In order to protect shrinking native Canadian grasslands, we need changes in policy and and extensive education to promote expansive native prairie and minimize degradation due to energy development, urbanization, or conversion to intensive agriculture.

Horned Lark in stubble near Dry Lake, Saskatchewan. T Herriot

Take a moment to read the report and then think of the moments you have shared with birds in the last year. As the people who live in the agricultural heart of the continent, we on the Great Plains have a particular responsibility to ring the alarm and help others to see what is happening to the common birds we have always assumed would be here to enliven the prairie.

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